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MY REFLECTIONS ON MUSIC, LIFE, FOOD AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE . . .

Phoebe Snow, St. Peter, and the meaning(s) of “Legacy”

I’m a fan of Phoebe Snow from two different angles, angles that one might even deem at odds with one another.  As I contemplate what in music resonates the most with me (something I do approximately 5 times a day) and ponder what life is about (something I do approximately 10 times a day), Phoebe keeps coming to my mind.

From the first angle, Phoebe came up with a remarkable debut album in 1974 (eponymously named) and announced her arrival on the music scene with a degree of soulfulness and artistic vitality that seemed a sure harbinger of world-beating triumph. And then a couple years later, her daughter Valerie was born, with severe disabilities. Rejecting suggestions that she institutionalize Valerie, Phoebe devoted herself to her daughter’s care for the duration of Valerie’s 31-year life. She continued to make music as feasible along the way, but the trajectory was clearly changed. She performed a bit more after Valerie’s passing, but that period lasted less than two years, cut short by a cerebral hemmorage in 2010 that ended her career and led to hear own death the following year. Her legacy will endure, but as with a transcendent athlete who suffers a career-altering injury, it will on some level be marked with “what ifs.”

From the second angle, Pheobe found enlightenment as she came up with (or maybe was thrust into) a remarkable life. She spent the statistical bulk of her adult life enmeshed in the sacred task of caregiving. Bookending that stretch of 31 years, we can look at short periods of comparatively unencumbered musical activity that most of us should be so lucky as to have, with an admirable maintenance of her skills in between (not to mention another half dozen records). But really the sheer devotion to goodness will endure more powerfully than anything. And a case could be made that the compromises had less to do with musical quality and more to do with visibility and the trappings of stardom. That is, she wasn’t deprived of potent music-making so much as the context of her life resulted in a narrower audience.

Of course we’ll never really know the full scope of her own feelings about all this, and it’s up to us to use the Phoebe Snow parable in whatever way makes the most philosophical sense to us. Is her tale a sad one? An inspiring one? One from which we should learn lessons or one that should simply make us grateful for what we have?

Me, I have been stewing for months over the vision of Phoebe meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates. Spiritual though I may consider myself to be, I’m not a religious man. But the image of a morally just figure serving as an arbiter of goodness and assessing worthiness for eternal paradise gives a concrete vision to the question of how to assess a life’s work. As I navigate my own choices in life, career, art, and navigation of obstacles (physical and otherwise) I often go back to the question of “in the end, what will matter?” That has been true for a few years now, but comparatively recent is the St. Peter imagery.

More specifically, as I’ve gone on a Phoebe Snow listening kick in recent months, I have thought about her life and asked myself “did St. Peter care that she never won a Grammy?” And, subsequently, “if not, then how much do those things REALLY matter?” That could be a sour grapes response, but for me it has been a helpful way to calibrate and refine my own priorities. Given how many formative perceptions of mine have revolved around “legacy” defined in terms of accolades and quantifiable accomplishments, it has been an interesting zone of contemplation.

So I finally wrote a song about it. I’ll play it for you sometime – in the meantime, here are the lyrics:

Valerie’s Arms (music & lyrics by Noah Baerman, (c) 2016, Chedda Chowda Music, ASCAP)

For 31 years, Phoebe took one for the team
That ain’t what you think when you picture livin’ the dream
Where were the number ones, the pretty gold statuettes?
I guess that’s what a life of virtue gets . . .

But I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on

In ‘75, Phoebe’s songs were front page news
From Poetry Man all the way to Harpo’s Blues
Peter’s her biggest fan, of the songs that are slick yet wild
But mostly he digs the care she gave her child

Yes I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on

He said if I let them in on talent alone
Then maybe we’d have the baddest nightclub in the universe
But I look for kindness down to the bone
And between you and me, the music really isn’t any worse

So was it a curse, a blessing, or a compromise?
You’d have to ask Phoebe, way up there in the skies.
But whenever I contemplate the loyalty that she vowed
I know she’s in Valerie’s arms up on a cloud

‘Cause I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on

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