Saturday, November 01, 2008

`Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden's?'

It has never bothered me that most song lyrics, whether the work of Cole Porter or Bob Dylan, can’t stand alone on the page as poetry, divorced from the human voice. The vogue for claiming the status of poetry for lyrics started in the sixties when the great culture leveling got seriously under way. I’m a veteran Dylan fan but I’m not certain he has ever written a line of genuine poetry, and that’s fine by me. His best work transcends doggerel but it’s still a world away from Wallace Stevens. You need his voice, his phrasing, his gift for elision and melisma, even his harmonica, to jump-start the words and keep them running.

In 1947, Alec Wilder wrote the music and words to “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s” for his friend Mabel Mercer, whom Whitney Balliett called “the matchless but largely unknown doyenne of American popular singing.” The preceding sentence probably contains not a single signifier, as the semiotic boys say, for most readers, certainly young ones. Wilder’s biographer, Desmond Stone, calls “Sneden’s” “a difficult art song,” and even Wilder deemed it “far-out.” For optimal impact listen to Mercer’s recording. Little of her work is available online and I was also unable to find Wilder’s lyrics, which I transcribed from Reading Lyrics, edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. In their introduction, the editors display admirable common sense on the question of poetry versus song:

“As everyone understands, reading song lyrics is very different from reading poems. A lyric is one-half of a work, and its success or failure depends not only on its own merits as verse but on its relationship to its music.”

Here are Wilder’s lyrics:

“Did you go to the school by the river?
Did you spend all your young days there?
Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s
With the setting sun blessing your hair?
Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s
Where the white houses cling to the hill?
Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s?
Do you think that you ever will?
All the wide-branching elms then were saplings,
And the soft rolling land did sleep;
And the silent stream flowed in contentment,
And it seemed a man never could weep.
Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s
Where the white houses cling to the hill?
Didyou ever cross over to Sneden’s?
Do you think that you ever will?
Is the past like a dream in remembrance?
Can you see now the frock you wore
On the day that you started for Sneden’s
From the strangely still, faraway shore?
Long I waited that day by the river;
Long I waited, my heart beat fast;
Long I’d planned what I’d say when you landed,
And I waited till daylight, daylight had passed.
I am still living over at Sneden’s,
And I still walk along the shore;
And I gaze at the elms across the river,
And I know that I’ll see you no more.
Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s
Where the white houses cling to the hill?
Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s?
Do you think that you ever will?”

The song has always reminded me of Cheever’s Wapshot novels. It’s evident that the man who wrote it had a gift for melody and rhythm (in language, I mean), some familiarity with the pastoral tradition in English poetry, and came of age in the decades before rock and roll, though the language is modern and conversational. To my ears, only “And the soft rolling land did sleep” sounds tritely archaic, and I like Wilder’s second mention of the elms. All but three of the song's 18 sentences are questions, which ought to be monotonous but isn’t. Using simple language, Wilder evokes a wistful, never melodramatic or self-pitying, sense of time and opportunity lost. Housman is not far away and I love the song dearly but it’s not poetry.

Part of its effectiveness is due to Wilder’s use of such an odd, vaguely comical place name – Sneden’s – with echoes of “snide, “Sweden” and “sneezin’.” In his biography of Wilder, Stone explains:

“Only a few people living around Nyack, in Rockland County, New York, could know that Sneden’s Landing on the Hudson River is a spot where produce had once been picked up for shipment by riverboat. Wilder said that after a drunken bout one night he next morning crossed the Hudson with a shad fisherman who sometimes transported people to catch the train on the east side. While waiting for the train, he began thinking of an aunt who he remembered had attended a boarding school at Dobbs Ferry. He wrote the lyric there and then (ironically, he learned later that she had in fact gone to Farmington School, nowhere near Dobbs Ferry).”


Jeff Gee said...

You can hear Mabel Mercer's version on the Wilderworld site -- scroll down to number 97.

Mary said...

Thanks Patrick for another great post. Thanks also jeff gee for the information on the Wilderworld site. Mabel Mercer helped get me through grad school up in the wild country of Oklahoma.

Anonymous said...

I heard Mabel Mercer in the late 50's, must have been at the RSVP. "Sneden's" was a curious musical fiction to me then, and it was only many years later that I learned that it was a real place.

JJCB said...

Janet Planet, a local musician from Oshkosh, Wisconsin has a wonderful recording of this piece. You can hear it and purchase at

Anonymous said...

I just decided to play my Mabel Mercer, and picked "Sneden's", as I had not listened to it in years. I googled the title to pass the time, and came across your blog. Never having seen the lyrics, much less the background of how Wilder came to write it, what a great piece of lyrical trivia. Much obliged for the elucidation..

Andrew Davidson said...

I was a music student in Boston in the late 90s when a woman in an American Art Song class declared that she was going to sing this. The class was diverse and the windings of the Hudson were not our forte. Now, I see it as a wonderful curiosity of a song that, on one hand, sounds like a wholesome folk tune, and on the other, sounds like a lyric with a dark subtext. Abandoned all those years ago, the singer is finally given a chance to ask this profound question ... on a final "crossing". Mabel Mercer's interpretation is sentimental and self-affecting - which was the style then. But I can imagine a very still, un-emotive, and authentic rendition that delivers the subtext and the haunting melody. Thanks for posting the lyric.