I thought Phoebe Snow had died long ago, when she was really just being an Ethics Hero.
In the mid-1970’s, the strong-voiced writer and singer of “Poetry Man” had two gold records at the young age of 26. She was hailed by critics as one of the most interesting and versatile singers in the pop world. “She appeared on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and recorded duets with Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. She made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, which pronounced her voice ‘a natural wonder,’” recalled the Washington Post in her obituary today. Phoebe Snow was an entertainer and an artist, and had reached the place where all artists strive to reach but few ever do: being paid a fortune to do what she loved and was talented at doing.
In December 1975, she had given birth to a daughter, Valerie Rose, with severe brain damage and other disabilities. Most recording stars of her stature, as well as actors and those in other intense, lucrative and competitive fields in the arts and out of them, would have placed Valerie in an institution. (Arthur Miller, the moralist playwright, not only institutionalized his Down Syndrome son during his Broadway career but hid his existence from the public.) Snow, however, put her show business success on hold to care for her daughter. Her record sales fell, and by the ’80’s, the music and the audience had moved on: few remembered Phoebe Snow. She recorded an occasional album and made money by applying her wonderful voice to advertising jingles for such companies as Stouffer’s, Michelob, Kodak, Exxon and General Foods, the equivalent of Rembrandt painting billboards.
Valerie died in 2006, and Phoebe, who never expressed any regret about her choice to be a loving mother and caregiver at the price of fame and doing what she loved so much, had begun the long, uncertain, road back to performing. There was no guarantee of success, and pop stardom, for a nearly forgotten star deep into middle age, was out of the question. That road ended with Snow’s unexpected death last week, at 60.
In a business in which artists will usually sacrifice themselves, their friends, their marriages, children, integrity and souls for their art and the fame and riches it can bring, Phoebe Snow embraced different, and more ethical, priorities. She chose to make her disabled child’s life as rich and as full of love as it was possible to make it, and never looked back. It seems that as gifted as she was at making music, she still lived her life doing what she was best at and loved most: being a mother.