Pop Around the World: Tombe la neige

An infinity of songs about snow

Most songs about snow are also about Jesus, or about Santa, or cozying up in a toasty cabin. They’re not all like that though, there’s Belle & Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” (here in a choral version from Vancouver and here in a delightfully dark version by the great Kiki & Herb), and let’s never forget Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes”, which seems ripe for a cover by well-known syzzurp aficionado Justin Bieber. There’s Kate Bush, who recorded an entire album about the ethereal white crystals. Inspired by the widespread idea that ‘Eskimos’ have hundreds of words for snow, Bush created her own list of 50 snow-white synonyms, coming up with delightful terms such as “Zhivagodamarbletash”, “sorbetdeluge”, or “swans-a-melting”, and recorded them with the help of Stephen Fry (rather obsessed with the vagaries and varieties of language). As for ascertaining just how many Eskimoan terms there really are for snow? That’d be a hopeless task, as the massively multilingual linguist Alexandra Aihenvald explains:

“the Eskimoan language group uses an extraordinary system of multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation called postbases. The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn’t that long: qani– for a snowflake, api– for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning “slush”, a root meaning “blizzard”, a root meaning “drift”, and a few others — very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.”

Aside from Schubert’s snowladen “Winterreise” cycle, my favorite snow song is French, and it uses the hushed, almost sacral atmosphere that snowfall creates to mirror an internal emptiness. Released in 1963, “Tombe la Neige” was written by Salvatore Adamo, a singer born in Sicily and raised in a mining region in Francophone Belgium. He’s written many songs that resonated across the European borders and beyond; there’s “La Notte”, “Les filles du bord de mer” (here sung in French by the very Waitsian Arno from Flanders) and “Inch’Allah” a song written in response to the Six Day War of 1967 (it was also covered by the Portuguese queen of fado, Amalia Rodrigues).

“Tombe la neige” was perhaps his biggest success though, and he recorded it in French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, even Japanese and Persian, and that’s not counting the many cover versions other people recorded in Russian, German, and Dutch. Aside from the melody’s nigh universal sway, its wide appeal can be found in the song’s lyrics, which really wallow in the central melodramatic metaphor. Take this bit from the second verse:

 Tout est blanc de désespoir [All is white with desperation]

Triste certitude [Sad certainty]

Le froid et l’absence [The cold and the absence]

Cet odieux silence [This hateful silence]

Blanche solitude [White loneliness]

The German version, released by Alexandra in 1968, takes some radical meteorological liberties, casting fog in snow’s place:

Grau zieht der Nebel durch die menschenleere Stadt [The fog draws gray through the people-less city]

Mein Herz ist einsam, weil es dich verloren hat [My heart is lonely, because it’s lost you]

Das Licht der Laternen scheint fahl durch die Bäume [The lanterns’ light shines sallow through the trees]

Und grau wie der Nebel sind all meine Träume [and gray like the fog are all my dreams]

Google translate, with its infinite wisdom and poetic prowess, claims that the first verse of Adamo’s own Japanese version sings of “むなしい夢 白い涙 / 鳥は遊ぶ 夜は更ける” [White tears vain dream/Night birds play indulge], which seems slightly more cruelly observed than the original:

Ce soyeux cortège, tout en larmes blanches [This silky procession, all in white tears]

L’oiseau sur la branche pleure le sortilège [The bird on the branch mourns the magic spell]

On sunny winter days such as today, I like to suggest an alternate translation for that last word, sortilège, which is also the name of a kind of maple whiskey. Just imagine that lonely bird crying alcoholic tears and weeping them all over your pancakes. Now inhale slowly, doesn’t that polar vortex seem much less claustrophobic? Now let’s all mambo!