In Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, the central character has been born into a life of leisure courtesy of the royalties from his father’s success in writing a perennial Christmas song, Santa’s Super Sleigh. This is probably rooted in some sort of reality as from about October onwards, many shops feel the need to start playing their musical loops of seasonal Christmas cheer, usually with the unimaginative mix of Slade, Wizzard, Wham, Jona Lewie et al. Within these, however, there is a sub-genre of songs focusing on snow, which tend to be more effective in raising associations with places than the generic all-purpose Christmas ditty.
By and large, songs featuring snow fall into one of two categories. The most common are those inextricably linked up with Christmas and, given the reality of snow, have an odd feel-good factor. In these songs, snow is a paradoxical backdrop to a warm feeling of goodwill to all men: Let it Snow, for example, or Winter Wonderland. These can easily veer to the Hallmark card end of songs, overly sentimental and cute, though even the most trite can shine in the right hands. Take Frosty the Snowman: a children’s song about a happy jolly soul becomes transformed by the Ronettes belting it out over Phil Spector’s wall of sound and Hal Blaine thundering round his drum kit or takes on a rather haunting, even slightly eery, tone, with the Cocteau Twins.
However, there are others that paint a much harsher picture of a snowy landscape. Little Feat sang of Six Feet of Snow. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds more than doubled that with Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow. Midlake painted a grim picture of survival in It Covers the Hillside: “It covers the roadways, it covers the hillsides it covers the houses, it covers the frozen pines”. Lindisfarne drew an equally dismal vision in their English urban setting of Winter Song,a kind of Newcastle version of Streets of London: “The creeping cold has fingers that caress without permission, and mystic crystal snowdrops only aggravate the condition....when winter comes howling in”. A long way from ‘the lights are turned down low, let it snow...’
In England, snow has played an iconic part in books, films and song, part of a hazy picture of a bygone country and age that perhaps never existed in reality and songs about snow can evoke real or imagined memories. In reality, a white Christmas is not that common. In the imagination (and on the front of christmas cards of course), it always snows, creating a magical landscape. Robins sit on snowy branches, couples skate over frozen ponds, hot chestnut sellers ply their wares, small boys spin their hoops down a cobbled street and peer wistfully into the frosted windows of a sweet shop full of humbugs.
Whereas American songs about snow and Christmas tend to look to an era of a semi-mythical 1940’s and 1950’s, English ones often reach further back, to the Nineteenth Century and beyond. Much of the robins/chestnuts/ice skating paraphernalia comes directly or indirectly from Charles Dickens and the Victorian invention of a traditional Christmas. However, this is mixed up with folk memories of a more ancient rural past of old England: in Snow Falls, The Albion Band described the annual death and rebirth of John Barleycorn: “And the snow falls, and the wind calls, and the year turns round again”. The result is an almost Pavlovian response by the listener to songs about snow and England, a mixture of real and false memories and nostalgia. It is a response perfectly captured by Ray Davies in his Postcard from London: ‘I found a postcard the other day, a faded photograph taken of a cold winterscape…It was a city I used to know and as a child when it was Christmas I played in the winter snow” .In memories of childhood, it always snowed at Christmas, just as summers were always shimmering and hot.
The song here also brings such echoes, in a rumination set against England’s snow. Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) is by English folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling from her 2009 album I Speak Because I Can and released as a Christmas single, despite its lack of festive cheer. Behind the observations on a shifting relationship and independence lies the imagery of a snow-covered English countryside. Laura Marling has spoken of this being rooted in a childhood memory of walking to the local village church: ‘I remember my Dad saying 'Please bring me back here before I die.' I was probably about 9 when he said this to me and I remember thinking 'What an horrific thing to say!'. But I hope I go back there before I die. I've got quite long roots in England, and because I grew up here, the beauty of England resonates with me more than any other kind of beauty”. This is sentimentalism with a harder edge: “I want to lay here forever in the cold, I might be cold but I'm just skin and bones, and I never love England more than when covered in snow”
The associations for me sparked by the song are a kaleidoscope of memories of places. Some are real: digging a Mini out of a snow drift in Hebden Bridge one New Years Day, watching the birds and ducks on a frozen Northamptonshire river a few days ago. Some are perhaps imagined. Did I really stand watching, at the age of maybe 5 or 6, people skating on a frozen lake in the local park or has this image been put there from too many Christmas cards and pictures of Victorian scenes? England covered with snow: places I remember, places I think I remember, places that never really existed.
Link to song