Sunday, May 1, 2011

For a Song: Harpo’s Blues

Phoebe Snow: Harpo‘s Blues


Have you heard Poetry Man this week? Maybe for the first time in years? Phoebe Snow passed on this week at age 60. Her story has much to tell us about the business end of how music gets made. Poetry Man, of course, was the monster hit from her 1974 debut. But Harpo’s Blues comes from the same album. The voice is unique, and it is certainly the same one on both songs. Snow’s voice shimmered, like gentle ripples on a moonlit pond. But, where Poetry Man leaned towards the pop-folk sounds of the then-new singer-songwriter movement, Harpo’s Blues is a wonderful bluesy jazz number. That debut album found Snow merrily genre hopping, and hitting most of her marks beautifully. It’s the kind of thing that no major label would touch nowadays. But in 1974, it was a viable way to launch a career. So what were some of Phoebe Snow’s hits from her later albums? Stumped? Let me tell you what happened.

Before the release of Phoebe Snow’s second album, she had a child. Daughter Valerie suffered from hydrocephalus, a severe form of brain damage. Phoebe Snow made the decision to care for her daughter at home, and this occupied far more of her time than the development of her musical career. So it was that many artistic decisions, including the choice of producer and material, were made for her. Because she transcended musical genres, this meant that her labels had a hard time finding material that was best for her. In some cases, like turning her into a rock singer for one album, poor judgments were made. Even so, that remarkable voice never faltered, and it is well worth picking through the rest of her albums for the many gems that are to be found there. As a parent myself, I applaud Phoebe Snow for the courage and determination she showed in deciding to keep her daughter out of institutions. I don’t know if I could be that strong. Still, can’t help wondering about the music she might have made… Valerie died in 2007. Phoebe Snow recorded only one album after her daughter’s death, Live in 2008. The amazing voice had gained some muscle since her debut, but all of the soulfulness of her youth was still there. If only she had had more time.