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The Song That Changed Your Life: Picks

Snowbird by Henry Adam Svec

The first time Gene MacLellan’s “Snowbird” kicked my ass was when I heard the late songwriter’s daughter, Catherine, perform it at a folk club in London, Ontario. I knew Anne Murray’s and Elvis’s recordings, but the ersatz backing and relentless tempo (on both their versions) had always sailed the song right past me. I dig Anne Murray, and if a number’s good enough for Elvis it’s good enough for me, I’ve always said. But Catherine melted the fat off the thing. I could finally see its shape, its darkness. 

I would sing “Snowbird” to myself as I came to grapple with my lot of relatively minor tribulations (learned the chords and words, from the internet, as soon as I got home that night). I’d sing it, every now and again, through a couple tough breakups, through uncertainty and self-doubt and generally gloomy spells; sing it right after work or when I needed a rest from reading, or before bed. While drinking cheap Ontarian wine. I know that a particular injury had also been bothering me then, several years ago now, when I first heard Catherine MacLellan’s rendition. I was ready to receive “Snowbird.” Still, I have trouble remembering which salts were in which wounds and when, because the song has worked me over each time with the very magic it pines for. You can’t fly away with the damn bird - can’t send back the snow, really, or your scars - but burdens can be lightened. And a great, brutal song can do some heavy lifting. 

I still belt out “Snowbird” sometimes. Where else in the Canadian songbook has the futility of desire, plus its mad unstoppable drive, been so exposed? _The thing I want the most in life’s the thing I can’t win. MacLellan’s tune pulls me about as low as you can go; but someone else has always been down here first, which I know every time I join in. It always feels a lot warmer, then, like spring brought on just by singing. Spread your tiny wings and fly away!

Henry Adam Svec is from London, ON

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