Fleet Foxes’ White Winter Scene

Fleet Foxes’ gorgeous self-titled record has been kicking melodies around my brain for a few weeks now, but the one that really won’t leave (my head or the bloggernet) is the stunning chorale “White Winter Hymnal.” In a Daytrotter interview the band said the lyrics are “not really meant to mean something,” but there’s actually a rich story here:

I was following the pack
All swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied ’round their throats
To keep their little heads
From falling in the snow
And I turned ’round and there you go
And Michael you would fall
And turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime

There’s a group of small children (“little heads,” “swallowed in their coats”) tottering through the snow — it could be a duckling line of schoolkids, bundled up and following their teacher on a nature hike, or a cluster of munchkins packing snowballs as they flank a rivaling ice fort. Meanwhile, the red scarves bode ominously, with the peppermint contrast of red on white snow and the surreal possibility that the children’s heads are somehow severed, steadied on top of their necks only by a woolly tourniquet.

With the words “there you go,” the harmonies become strained and the scene worsens. Michael falls, his head toppling off his shoulders and spilling marmalade blood into the snow. But the imagery of “strawberries in the summertime” dissolves the horror almost before it starts, transporting us to a sweet, sunny memory as the melody returns to its first, tranquil chord.

When Fleet Foxes said they didn’t intend “White Winter Hymnal” to have much meaning, they must have meant only to highlight the song’s lush melody. But packing exposition, climax, and denouement into just eight lines, the song is a beautiful, spare piece of poetry that lets listeners imagine their own pages in between.

MP3: Fleet Foxes – “White Winter Hymnal”


12 responses to “Fleet Foxes’ White Winter Scene

  1. Love it. Analysis that makes you actually want to listen… Props, Shtuhl!

  2. To me, the lyrics suggest a pack of dogs pulling a sled through the snow. The “pack”, their “coats” of fur, red bandanas around their necks…

    Turning around — that is, attempting to do anything that the rest of the pack isn’t doing — results in an accident. (“Michael” — the driver of the sled? Another dog?)

    The consequences of trying to be different.

  3. These are lovely evocative lyrics, I agree.

    To me the song is about recalling an accident in the snow that befell one child among a group. The accident is “ordinary” — that is, no one’s head fell off. What makes it extraordinary is the (implied) grief and trauma in the recollected scene — helped along by the tense changing from past (I was following) to present (There you go!)to conditional (Michael you would fall). Those changes, while undermining ordinary time logic, are true to the vividness of the recollection, to which the speaker naturally has returned again and again.

    And, yes, the metaphor of the sweetness of strawberries and the horror of the injured child,
    which echoes the sweetness of the hymn-like choral singing.

  4. black strawberries

    it’s a beautiful song. I don’t necessarily see any blood there. the red could just be the scarf. I like this ambiguity in there.

    check out this short film:

    it’s called “black strawberries”, and I had to think of it when I read the lyrics here. thanks.

  5. Its all about contrast. In dependence upon which we are able to perceive anything. So this song with its vast immediate contrasts becomes remarkably evocative in different.
    – I seem to get get a pack of hounds and michael the fox –

  6. I had never heard of this song until the acapella group ‘Sonos’ did a beautiful rendition. This is a haunting song.

  7. I found your article googling to find out what others had made of these haunting lyrics – they’ve been dancing through my head. Like much of Fleet Foxes, I also can’t help but feel the lyrics have an ominous edge, even though, on the surface, they sound beautiful.

  8. Here is a quote from one of the band members. “From first grade to high school I spent every day with the same bunch of kids. And it was weird to see how people I had known so long would change so quickly – suddenly they’re drug dealers. I hated it. How did our friendships become less important than wearing a backwards baseball cap?” That’s what the song is about. Loss of innocence.
    Someone the band knew, Michael, joined a gang and got shot.

    I also like to see that as an allusion to the archangel Michael. Very symbolic. (Even though i’m not religious)

  9. very haunting song…in a happy way though =)

  10. This is really silly. Everyone is seeing sinister imagery when it’s just a childhood memory. The snow turning red could just be the color of the scarf against the snow when he falls, or maybe a skinned knee or busted lip. It’s part of childhood. “To keep their little heads from falling in the snow” is just a whimsical way of describing that they were bundled up. As proof that the authors didn’t mean anything sinister, Robin Pecknold describes what he intended with the lyrics in an interview:

    “[Interviewer]: ‘Lyrically, there’s sort of an idea of following the leader, but you play that ambiguously. How do you see it?’

    [Pecknold]: ‘I mean a lot of the record is about family and friends, very little of it is… I don’t think there’s any real love song that’s on the record, but that one is just like about my experience when I was a kid, you know, like I had my really tight group of friends. But as we grew up from grade school to junior high to high school, everybody just kind of split off, and everybody kind of changed. I went from like this tight-knit group to, seemingly for no reason, everybody was kind of going their own way. That song is just about that feeling.'”

    –Later in the same interview:

    [Interviewer]: ‘The song references a person named Michael. Is that someone specific, or is that just a name for a feeling?’

    [Pecknold]: ‘A person named Michael.’

    [Interviewer]: ‘It is?’

    [Pecknold]: ‘[Laughs.] Yeah. Michael is a great buddy of mine from back when. We just totally, I don’t know, he was one of the kids I knew from grade school on. If I saw him now, I really don’t know what we would talk about. It’s just kind of that same thing that kind of happened really gradually.’ ”

    So there you have it. The meaning behind this song is no deeper, or more sinister than that. Just a whimsical, nostalgic song about the close-knit companionship of his own childhood. The snow turning red was probably the scarf against the snow as Michael fell, or maybe stains from a skinned knee or busted lip. Nothing worse…just nostalgia for childhood, remembering falling down and playing in the snow. I guess if you don’t believe the writer of the song, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but personally I think that the song meaning he gives fits the nostalgic melody much better than all this dark interpretation. It’s funny how people think they know the meaning of a song or poem better than the person that wrote it… :P

  11. And Michael you would fall refers to the angel Michael falling from grace to earth.

  12. I hope to goodness one of my favorite bands isn’t making some parody of the death of the archangel Michael. :/

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