Strawberries In The Snow: A Short Tour Round A Song

Strawberries In The Snow, released on The Pearlfishers 1998 album The Young Picnickers, and in a different arrangement on the expanded edition of A Sunflower At Christmas (2009) is a song that brings technical craft to bear on a seed idea, developing a complete work from one chord sequence.

The song started as a simple keyboard improvisation in which the root note of a sustained B Minor chord descended chromatically through Bb A and Ab before modulating downwards to repeat the descent under an A Minor chord in the key of C. The combination of minor chords and a bright tempo created a somewhat ambiguous feeling somewhere between sweetness and melancholy.[1] The musical colour was further enhanced by the sound of the instrument used, a Fender Rhodes electric piano. The Rhodes piano uses tuned metal ‘tines’, one for each piano key, struck by a felt hammer and amplified by individual pick-ups to produce a bell-like tone. Played with strong attack the tone is bright, with a discernible growl (it can be heard in Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke). Played softly, however, the instrument loses much of its edge, resembling more a dark, sustained vibraphone (10CC’s I’m Not In Love). In the case of the musical exploration that resulted in Strawberries In The Snow, this darker sonic quality established an atmosphere which influenced the eventual direction of the lyric.

Elements of that atmosphere might be described as:

  • Sweet / Sad (ambiguous harmony)
  • Travelling / Moving (the harmony changes with every beat)
  • Chiming / Wondrous (the sparkling bell tone of the Rhodes)
  • Endless (the chords can loop comfortably)

The opening lyrical ideas of Strawberries In The Snow sprang from the rhythmic and harmonic feel of the descending chord sequence:

A sunny day
You and I
Walking through the

If we think of the ambiguous atmosphere of this chord sequence then the combination of “Sunny Day” and “Wilderness” makes sense. The travelling / chiming / wondrous elements of the chords then find expression in subsequent lines:

Looking for
Traces of
Magic in an
Ordinary world

The lyrics are presented here in short lines to depict the vocal phrasing and how that phrasing interacts with the chord changes (the song is in ¾ or waltz time and for this first section the chords change with every bar). There are no rhymes in this opening verse or in much of the rest of the lyric, a device used by Carole King in You’ve Got A Friend:

When you’re down and troubled
And you need some loving care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me

-Carole King
You’ve Got A Friend

In my BBC Radio Scotland feature Waxing Lyrical (2008) James E. Perone comments on the effect of King’s technique:

If we just end at that point, we haven’t had any rhymes, so it comes off as being a really heartfelt expression. It doesn’t have the typical song lyrics form to it where there’s a line, a statement then another statement then a rhyme…(Waxing Lyrical, 2008)

In Strawberries In The Snow the intended effect of the technique is to draw the listener in to a narrative; expected rhymes fail to materialise and we are asked to concentrate on content over form.

Relief from bar-by-bar chord changes comes in line nine, “magic in an ordinary world”, when a D Minor chord is held for two bars, resolving to G7 before repeating the movement. I shall refer to this as Section B. This was a deliberate change designed to provide some textural variety in both harmonic and rhythmic terms and also to offer a harmonic route into a key change.[2]

By this point in the song we have left the original improvisation and are firmly in the realms of craft, harmonic variety, melodic interest. The mood, the emotional atmosphere of the song has been set by that initial harmonic exploration but conscious development is now in play.

The first proper rhyme we hear is:

Our future will collide
With everything we’ve set aside for us.

This is intended as a development of the earlier theme of “magic in an ordinary world”. It is important that the words selected allow for some level of ambiguity so that the suggestion of magic can continue to exist. Words without ambiguity will not allow that level of possibility. For example, if the lyrics state:

If we put by some cash
It’ll grow into a great fat stash some day

there is no doubt that the object in question is financial security. However, if we say that our future will collide with something, we can start to imagine an explosion, something unusual, possibly some ‘magic in an ordinary world’. The cash / stash joke version misses something else; in terms already set out by the ambiguous harmony of the song it might not be magic we’ve set aside but trouble.

Verse two further develops this ambiguity, albeit in more fantastical language:

And there we were
Eating these
Strawberries from
A dirty plate

This is perhaps reminiscent of an image from a recurring dream in which our imagination focuses on some incongruous detail, that of the dirty plate framing a vivid red strawberry. The narrative moves on:

She was still
On about
Raising frogs
In Texas State

Why this form of words? Why not:

She was still
Dreaming of

“Dreaming of” would certainly resonate with the nightmare imagery of “strawberries from a dirty plate”, but the deliberate use of the colloquial, “on about”, grounds us in a possible reality, reinforcing the dualistic nature of the lyric (fantastical / everyday) and the narrative’s forward movement.

There is a further development in verse two in the direct rhyme of “plate” and “state”, moving on from the assonant coupling of “wilderness” and “world” (which occur roughly at the corresponding point in the scheme in verse one). As we approach the chorus or C Section, developments like this are gathering dynamic force, further propelling the upward motion of the song’s melody, over the cartoon triumph of:

And walking through the fourth dimension
Feeding lions flowers in the park

This latter image recalls the ambiguity of the earlier “everything we’ve set aside for us” in its suggestion of an attempt to keep bad at bay or to set aside troubles.[3]

The chorus of Strawberries In The Snow does what choruses often do: it paints the message of the song in bold colours. In My Dad The Weatherfan (2003) I wrote the verses as short teasing vignettes based in a family joke – my father’s unshakeable faith in the accuracy of BBC weather reporting – but used the chorus lyric:

Across the sky, angels push the clouds away
I wanna live in your way, I wanna live in your way

-David Scott
My Dad The Weatherfan

The song’s unambiguous message is that faith is no joke at all, that it is something to admire, something to which we should aspire. In this chorus lyrical sophistication is dispensed with; “away” and “way” is at best an untidy rhyme and “wanna” is a vernacular cliché, a sin compounded by its immediate repetition. Nevertheless the lyric chimes loudly with meaning.

Strawberries In The Snow does not entirely dispense with surreal imagery in its chorus, but the meaning is equally clear:

Something went wrong in the rain
Hidden way deep in the ice cream
Frozen and bitter
Like strawberries in the snow

Simply put, something is wrong. We can then decode images like “hidden way deep in the ice cream” as dark in colour. I’ll return to the title image later.

The harmony and melody of the chorus is, in contrast to Section A and B, plain and straightforward, the chord of C Major changing to the chord of F and back to C before returning to the ambiguity of the verse harmony. In contrast to the verse, the chorus melody hardly strays from the notes present in the chord triad (in C, the notes of C, E, G, in F the notes F, A, C).

Verse three of Strawberries In The Snow shows signs of a lack of ideas, resorting to word play and obfuscation. I’ve added some questions / observations in italics:

She was young
I was, too (two?)
We were on the roller-coast (emotional roller coaster?)
Sailing in
Sailing out
Swimming at an ordinary beach (no, it actually is a coast)
Our future will collide…

This is a clear attempt to flesh out a structural template, one that accepts the need for a reprise of the verse melody after we hear a chorus. Unfortunately the lyric adds nothing new to the narrative, offering instead weak restatement. In fact, the richness of verses one and two left little to say. I am in noble company in this regard. Paul McCartney complains:

It is often quite hard when you’ve got this little inspirational thing. Often I find I’ve said it in those first four lines and I don’t actually want to say any more. If I was being artistically true to myself I’d make the rest of it instrumental; but you know songwriting – you’ve got to do better than that. (Martin, 1983, p. 62)

Actually, an instrumental restatement of the verse would have been preferable, allowing the lyric to pick up again with “our future will collide”. As it stands the relief is audible at that point in the recorded vocal performance.[4]

The central image of Strawberries In The Snow, appropriately for this song, has two distinct meanings. In chorus one we know that something is wrong, frozen and bitter. The image of the strawberry is of something that has shrivelled and died. Conversely, the second chorus sounds alive, defiant:

We will step out in the rain
Dressed up in clothes for the summer
We’ll rediscover
The strawberries
Hidden in the snow

Now the strawberries are hidden like a Christmas present or a coin inside a cake, rich with promise. The naive false rhyme of “summer” with “rediscover” is hopeful, both linguistically (“can I get away with this rhyme?”) and in concrete meaning.

The sweetness of hope, of course, retreats into ambiguity for a long instrumental playout section derived from the original improvisation session, consisting of a looped chord sequence topped with a trumpet ostinato and accompanied below by a bass that constantly moves away from the root note of the chords. The contrast between the chord and the bass creates an unsettled feeling – the harmony is not right to our ears – matching the meandering worry at the heart of Strawberries In The Snow and bringing the song back full circle to its improvised origin. The repeated trumpet figure reinforces elements described earlier as travelling and endless and the unsettling bass movement describes the sweet / sad ambiguity of the lyric. Further, the chiming element of Strawberries In The Snow finds a mirror not only in the ringing piano chords of the playout, but in the gathering chimes of technique and meaning that unfold in the course of the song.

The advantage then of deriving a melody / extrapolating a song from a chordal improvisation is primarily that of retaining those original inspirational gestures and working with them to sculpt a coherent and meaningful statement. That harmony, or conflation of notes, provides an important emotional point of reference, which if carried throughout all elements of the song makes it work.[5]

[1] Richard and Robert Sherman’s mournful Chim Chim Cher-ee (Mary Poppins 1964) uses a similar downward chromatic movement, as does Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven.

[2] At the end of verse one the G moves up one tone to A for a brief instrumental section, at the end of verse 2 up 4 tones to the key of C Major and the Chorus section.

[3] Strawberries In The Snow is certainly an attempt to write in the cinematic style of Jimmy Webb, whose MacArthur Park features the famous lines:

Someone left a cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
For it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again

Written in 1967 / 68 MacArthur Park bears the hallmarks of it’s psychedelic era, but also, in these lines, the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years Of Solitude appeared at roughly the same time. In any case this particular quatrain, the meaning of which has been much discussed, is surely a plain enough metaphor for the neglect and subsequent demise of a relationship.

[4] Strawberries In The Snow took a long time to write: two years from idea to completion. By Verse 3 I was probably ready to accept anything to get the song done.

[5] Primary School children are taught to recognize minor chords as ‘sad’, major chords as ‘happy’. In my own practice I have asked children to define more complex chords in much the same way. Major 7th chords have been described as ‘in-between’ and chords with dramatic bass substitutions as ‘scary’. Further I have developed some simple musical games in which children are asked to improvise round a series of written instructions while another group try to decode those instructions from the performance. In most cases I find that children have an acute ability to abstract narrative, visuals and emotion from musical harmony.

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