Stillness, Slowing, and David Berman’s “Snow is Falling in Manhattan”
Until recently, my most potent memory of snow was a surprise blizzard sometime in December 2016. My grandfather had tickets to a musical in the West Village, and I was tucked next to him in the windowless theater when the storm began. At intermission, we stood to stretch our legs in the lobby and found all of Manhattan bright white through the wide windows. We watched the snow fall in sheets, emptying sidewalks, burying cars, and slowing the city down, still and quiet.
Since fall of last year, WAMH and the music blog have been putting together playlists of music recommended by DJs for each season, so these last months I’ve been editing blurbs and listening to all the songs recommended for the winter. Before, I would have told you that all I wanted when the temperature dropped was a song that reminded me of warmth — sun, hot weather, summer — but since December, I’ve been struggling to figure out what winter music this year means to me.
This winter is the first I’ve spent at Amherst and the first time I’ve found myself enjoying the cold: being attentive to it, embracing it, getting out in it. Instead of rushing from inside place to inside place, I wear my fall coat most days and keep my window open. I take long runs and walks on the streets through town at sunset just to feel the freezing wind on my cheeks and ears. Instead of wishing for the months to hurry by, I have been trying to slow the winter down and, more than ever, slow myself down in it.
There is one song that has helped with this: “Snow is Falling in Manhattan” from David Berman’s “Purple Mountains,” the last album he recorded before his death in 2019. “Purple Mountains,” and the project of the same name, was a collaboration between Berman and members of the folk rock band Woods. There are 10 songs on the album, all of which Berman wrote in the decade after the dissolution of his indie rock band, Silver Jews. Over the course of this decade, Berman fell deep into debt, lost his mother, and separated from his wife of 20 years. The album is saturated with this hurt. Nevertheless, most of the songs maintain Berman’s classic combination of light, upbeat guitar lines with mordant lyrics.
“Snow is Falling in Manhattan” is the fourth song on the album and perhaps the only song on it I find still and quiet—peaceful even, though a bit lonely. “Snow is falling in Manhattan / In a slow diagonal fashion,” Berman sings, “The good caretaker springs to action / Salts the stoop and scoops the cat in.” Berman watches the snow fall over the city, and listens to the sudden silence of the storm. In the chorus he softly exalts, “Snow, oh!” over and over. My favorite line in the song is: “It’s blanketing the city streets / And the streets beneath are fast asleep.”
Although I’ve listened to the album many times, I only really found myself noticing this song for the first time a few weeks ago. It was one of those deep gray January days and I was on a hill in Wildwood Cemetery, above and behind the center of Amherst. I had been walking quickly to the rhythm of the first three songs on “Purple Mountains,” but when “Snow is Falling in Manhattan” began, I found myself slowing down. I listened while looking down past trees and gravestones to the ice- or snow-coated roofs of the houses in town, feeling acutely the quiet of Berman’s scene.
Last winter, I took an art class called “Image & Text” over interterm. We began each class with something our professor called “slow looking.” He would put an image on the Zoom screen and we would sit with it for five minutes, and then talk about what captured us — what we noticed, what we couldn’t help but notice. I would look and think to myself in the moment how good it felt to look, be still, and then go about my day as usual — quickly.
“Songs build little rooms in time,” Berman sings just after he tells us of those sleeping city streets. This song is a pocket of quiet in an album overwhelmed with grief, dark humor, envy, and loss. It is a moment where Berman looks out to the world, watches closely as it moves, and allows himself to rest with it. My attempts to slow down this winter haven’t been constant, or always successful, but I have been trying to hold the moments when I feel myself walk, look, or listen my way into some kind of stillness. So winter music, this year, is the music that helps me do just this. “Inside I’ve got a fire crackling / You’re the old friend I just took in,” Berman sings in the last line. It’s a winter song.
My most potent memory of snow, recently, is from the walk home from the cemetery that day. I had “Snow is Falling in Manhattan” on repeat because I wanted to keep its stillness with me, and was moving slowly downhill on the long streets. It was getting dark, and warm lights began to turn on in the living and dining rooms of houses. When I got to the spot where the train tracks cross the road, I stopped and realized it was snowing: lightly, not in Manhattan, not in Berman’s slow diagonal fashion, but snowing all the same. I stopped again, looked, and listened, in no hurry.