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Whatever Happened to Phoebe Snow?

The fact that there was a good answer has nothing to do with the fact that the standard question about Phoebe Snow is a bad one. Snow, who died this week (at age 58, she would have said, or 60, as The New York Times reported), made eleven studio albums, as well as live records and compilations, from the time she started recording, in 1975, until 2010, when she had a devastating stroke and fell into a coma. Eleven albums is a solid body of work, exactly the same number of studio records Randy Newman has made. Everything Snow recorded is worth listening to, and much of it is extraordinarily good—deeply musical, emotive, and instantly recognizable as uniquely her own. Still, for years now, when the subject of Snow has come up around me, I’ve found people responding with a look of, “Whatever happened to her?”

What they’re really wondering is, “Why did she disappear from the top of the pop charts and stop appearing on television and in big concert tours?” The question is dumb. The fact is, the shelf life of pop stars is mercilessly brief, and only a miniscule fraction of singers who ever have top-ten hits, as Snow did with her first single, “Poetry Man,” in 1975, ever stay popular for long. To wonder why her fleeting claim to stardom ended is like wondering what stardom itself is. It’s fleeting, that’s what it is. Moreover, in mainstream pop forms like top-40 music, longevity favors the malleable, the artists best skilled at adjusting to the vagaries of popular taste. Great and original artists are rarely so accommodating.

It is remarkable that Phoebe Snow sustained an active creative life for so long. A couple of her late-career records, I Can’t Complain, from 1998, and Natural Wonder, from 2003, are among her best. It is all the more extraordinary that she produced so much notable work and performed actively while she was raising a severely brain-damaged child as a single mother.

I knew Snow in passing. My wife and I had dinner with her one night, while her daughter was under the care of a friend, and Snow drove us home in her car. I noticed the adult-size car seat for her daughter, who was in her late twenties then and would live only a few more years. The three of us sat parked alongside a curb in Manhattan and listened to a cassette of some tunes that ended up on Natural Wonder. Snow talked movingly but matter-of-factly about her daughter, and she sang, a cappella in the car, a verse of a song she was writing for her. Snow later titled it “You’re My Girl.” Here, in memory of both women, is a fan video of Snow performing that song a year after her daughter’s death, as well as a clip of her doing the blues standard “Just to Be With You,” from her prime in the 1980s.