maclellan-album1What is it about the BBC Radio 2 perennial country-folk ballad Snowbird that continues to fascinate me? The song, a hit for Anne Murray in 1970 (but also subsequently covered by Elvis Presley on the 1971 album Elvis Country), was written a few years previously by songwriter Gene MacLellan, best known otherwise only for the overtly religious Put Your Hand in the Hand. In contrast to that Snowbird uses poetic abstraction to full effect. MacLellan, a Canadian, apparently wrote the song in 25 minutes while walking on Prince Edward Island – in fact we have the near exact location: close to his aunt’s home in Pownal, a small hamlet a few miles East of Charlottetown. His inspiration was a flock of snow buntings playing on the beach. Snow buntings are migratory, and often arrive at their wintering grounds in the south of Canada along with the first snowfall of the season. In the spring they return further north to the arctic.

Spread your tiny wings and fly away
And take the snow back with you
Where it came from on that day
The one I love forever is untrue
And if I could you know that I would
Fly away with you

The attraction of the song comes down to that descending melodic line, which forms the basis of both the verses and the chorus, and which counteracts the cheerfulness usually implied by the major key signature and the rapid, skipping tempo. The chord sequence is straightforward enough – tonic/mediant/supertonic/dominant/tonic – but the first phrase leads to and pauses on the supertonic chord of D minor (on the words “away” and “untrue” in the chorus) which contributes to the melancholy mood. Murray, Elvis Presley, and MacLellan himself, all opt for the fast tempo in their respective versions. There is a slow performance by the composer’s daughter Catherine, but to me it drags. Gene MacLellan appears to have had a generally unhappy history, afflicted with polio in childhood and then badly injured in a road accident that killed his father – he bore the scars all his life and wore an eye patch. He eventually committed suicide in January 1995 while at his house in Summerside, less than 50 miles from the snow buntings at Pownal.

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