March 4, 2011

Finding the Spiritual in the Musical: White Winter Hymnal

As I was sipping the good stuff and puttering about the blogosphere this morning, generally minding my own business, my quiet thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of an echo-like stutter, an "I was followin' the I was followin' the I was followin' the...", and my heart leapt.  I'm not typically enraptured when I come upon blogs with music playlists.  Not that I'm annoyed by it by any means; it's a great way to get to know someone, really, hearing what they like to listen to.  But most times I just politely turn down my laptop's volume and keep reading.  It's not a music elitist thing, truly (though I have been known to keep U2 up for reasons unknown to myself); more like an I-only-have-so-much-ability-to-concentrate-and-music-always-demands-more-than-background-status-so-I-have-to-keep-it-to-one-thing-at-a-time thing.  When I heard the above words, the same principle stood, but I couldn't turn it down.  Instead, I listened and forgot to read the blog (till after the song was over, at which point I turned down the volume and thoroughly enjoyed the reading)!  The song I was listening to was the Fleet Foxes' enigmatic "White Winter Hymnal," which I'd heard many times before, every time proving as wonderful (in the word's truest sense) and mysterious as the first.  Listen and watch, and see what I mean...

What do you think?  Do you have any idea what it could mean?  Who was the pack, and why was he following them?  Why were they wearing "scarves of red tied 'round their throats to keep their little heads from falling in the snow"?  What does that mean, anyway?  Who's Michael and how did he fall?  Did the snow turn "red as strawberries" because his fall caused him to bleed?  If that's the case, do the red scarves represent blood as well?

Is this just a sweet memory of boyhood pleasures, simple as the words used to describe it, or is there something deeper in these lyrics?  How does the video relate to the song, or does it at all?

Some friends and I did an analysis of this song for a class last year, and listening to it again this morning brought back all the memories and all the emotions this song stirred within me when I first heard its beautiful harmonies and enchanting lyrics.  It hauntingly evokes in my mind the passage of time, the loss of innocence, and the coming of death.  Maybe that's not what it means at all.  Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes' lead singer and songwriter, doesn't believe that giving away an absolute meaning behind the song is imperative, but rather understands that a certain enigmatic element is desirable.  It's a perspective I admire in a songwriter, even if I don't - and sometimes can't - adhere to it myself.

When doing research on the Fleet Foxes, I found this review, (from the UK's newsreel, The Independent) which is very telling of the band's style and history.  As a believer in the sacred, I'm always interested in the spiritual side of things, so my interest was piqued with these words:
There's a churchy quality to the rich, rousing vocal-round that begins "White Winter Hymnal", and some critics have picked up on the devotional sound that informs parts of Fleet Foxes' debut. It's easy to imagine the group bringing in the sheaves, but Pecknold is not a believer. 

"My dad was quite critical of organised religion, so we kids were never scuttled out to church. I don't know if there is a Judeo-Christian God, but if there is, I wouldn't blame Him for everything that's wrong in the world. I suppose music is a devotional vocation for me, and even if you're not religious that thing of aspiring to some kind of greatness can be a very useful tool. When you hear pure devotion, though – like Brian Wilson aiming to honour God on Pet Sounds – it's a lot more powerful than the average love song."
Rather than honouring God, Pecknold's songs seem designed to honour those closest to him. He describes his compositions as "happy accidents" and says that he is not particularly attached to them, something that surprises me, given their quality and intensely personal nature. 
Although he is not a Christian, Pecknold's perspective on God is so fresh, so humble.  And his words on the "devotional vocation" of music truly inspire me to be a better songwriter, both for those who simply hear the power in music directed to honor God, and for those who with me desire to honor God.  Despite his calling them "happy accidents," I'm a great believer in absolute meaning in music, whether or not the composer intends it.  I'm quite compelled by a lot of what the Fleet Foxes have said in their music so far, looking forward to what they will say in the future, even if I don't always ever understand it...

What have you been listening to lately?  Do you think all/much of music ultimately has something spiritual to say, or can it sometimes just be enjoyed at face value?


  1. Reading this and listening to the song again makes me miss Apologetics and being in school...that was a fun project!

  2. i LOVE that you love this song :) and that it inspired a whole blog post! woot! that's so great. to tell you the truth i just love the poetry of the words, and the harmony of their voices... i don't know a lot about the meaning of the song, but i find it so beautiful... i'm so glad to have met you, friend. :) your place here is full of grace. e.

  3. Fleet Foxes always walk a fine line for me. Either they're being really, really, profound, or they're singing utter gibberish and being rather silly. Or both, somehow, which I think likely.

    Micheal's little head fell in the snow, turning it red as strawberries. (Albedo? I'm panicking...) Which always, always, makes me think of this. I'm not sure why.

  4. Linnea - Indeed! That was a pretty cool class. :)

    Emily - Likewise! I totally identify with you on the beauty of the Fleet Foxes' music. And whether or not it makes any sense to me whatsoever, I still believe there is great value in beauty!!! So glad to have connected with you!

    Mr Pond - hahah! "You don't like my snowman house of horror, do you?" Classic Calvin. Re: FF, though, sometimes there is great profundity in gibberish. Consider Fern. :) By the way, I think the Auntie will come out in me in a few days... Mind if I make a birthday post for the sweet girl? I still have pictures of her that I took with intentions of sharing, which I never did! I must find an outlet for this auntie-love bubbling up inside of me!