Trip Shakespeare’s “Snow Days” isn’t a song that would usually find its way into my rock ‘n’ roll heart. There’s the bloated, almost operatic, singing. There’s the idea that “real” rock ‘n’ roll has its origins in the streets, not the highly academic origins of the band members. And there’s the academic “wit” of some of the lyrics. Chainfields? Motor Veins? But sometimes you just have to put working class chauvinism aside. “Snow Days” has a place in my heart and has had one since I first heard it on a trip to Minneapolis in the mid-‘90s, several years after its release.
It snowed yesterday in Springfield, MO. Snows aren’t unheard of in South Central Missouri or Northwest Arkansas, my primary locations since 1989. They are this early in the year. Having spent a good deal of my growing-up and adult years in New Jersey, there is a certain nostalgia attached to snow. But nostalgia is poor fodder for a good rock ‘n’ roll song.
I’ve got a story. Several, actually.
When my father was transferred to McGuire Air Force Base in 1965, snow days were an opportunity, not an escape from school. For the children of enlisted men, the opportunity was to make some money by teaming up with other kids to shovel the sidewalks. The good money was across the boulevard that separated the officer’s quarters from the lower income enlisted families. In those days, all Base Housing (except for General’s quarters which were comfortable brick houses with landscaped yards a few miles away) consisted of town houses built in courts of 18 units each. In our court there were something like 90 kids – one of the largest concentrations of juveniles in the whole complex and with a sufficient number of snow-shoveling age to form an impressive work force. We learned quickly that the best way to negotiate wages was to team up. Nowadays some people would probably refer to us as “union thugs.” As far as I can determine, Base Housing is now privatized. Probably the snow removal as well.
After my father left the Air Force my older brother and I would team up with other kids in the Holly Hills neighborhood of Mt. Holly (mostly ex-military) and then Prospect Heights, a working class neighborhood in Trenton. Old enough now to have a paper route, my parents were insistent on “saving money for college.” Record money would still be mostly dependent on the annual winter weather. From the beginning, I used the windfall of snow day cash to fuel my passion for music. First there were new singles by chart acts like Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Mamas & Papas, Aretha, Glen Campbell – mixed with 5 for a dollar cut-out singles of older tunes. I had a lot of catching up to do, having missed the soul wave in the segregated play lists of South Carolina. During the last couple of years of my snow-shoveling days it turned to albums. The last album I remember buying with snow money was the White Album. I probably wore that one out by January.
Once indoctrinated into the world of grown up labor, snow days meant something entirely different. They meant a brief respite from the ever-increasing demands of management. In the 21st century version of labor/management relations, things have declined to a point where labor is expected to brave the weather in all kinds of storms. There are no snow days. Show up for work or else. This includes all types of labor – lower level management, industrial workers, cash-register clinkers, fast-food workers, teachers… all of us. Lower pay, lower benefits, lower safety… “We are all outlaws in the eyes of (corporate) Amerika.”
The guy I most admired at my last job before I retired was the one who NEVER came to work if there was so much as 1 snowflake falling from the sky. The supervisors would make it a point of mocking and belittling him at warehouse meetings. “So-and-so made it and they live 20 miles away. How come you can’t?” It never flustered the guy. “I won’t risk my safety for this job.” He’d been employed there for about 15 years. He was a good worker, knew his job well. They threatened to fire him – never did. Everyone knew it was just his way of throwing the finger at an employer who didn’t want to pay him anything close to his value. Still… there were those who succumbed to the pettiness and labeled him a “sissy.” The fucking guy had more guts than all of them combined. As far as I know, he’s still employed there. I’m positive he didn’t go to work yesterday.
What has all this got to do with “Snow Days,” the song?
It’s this. Despite an aura of pomposity, when it comes right down to it, “Snow Days” envelops the subversive nature that is essential to a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll – this time with a beautiful arrangement and a calming piano break. It tells the tale of a dedicated and overworked teacher on a day when the snow is falling. And the respite that a day off can provide, if she’ll only take it. “There’s a blessing on the ground. Go home.” That’s rock ‘n’ roll.