By: David McPherson
“Snowbird was the song that started it all and was the one no matter how many hits I had, was the one people seemed to always go back to. It absolutely changed my life!” – Anne Murray
People hear the word snowbird today and the first image is of retirees migrating south for the winter. Flash back to 1970 and snowbird was the title of one of the world’s most popular songs.
First released in 1969 on Anne Murray’s This Way is My Way album, it wasn’t until the following summer that this ballad—written in only 25 minutes by Gene MacLellan—was discovered thanks to an American DJ who played the B-side of Murray’s record. This beautiful folksong struck a chord. With its poetic words and sing-a-long melody, it changed forevermore the lives of Murray and MacLellan.
A crossover hit, “Snowbird” reached No.2 on Canada’s pop charts and No.1 on both the adult contemporary and country charts. South of the border, “Snowbird” reached No.8 on the U.S. pop singles chart, spent six weeks at No.1 on the adult contemporary chart, and even cracked country radio’s Top 10. The song earned MacLellan a JUNO for Composer of the Year and a BMI award as the first Canadian composer with a song played over 1 million times in the U.S. On the strength of the song’s success, Murray even became the first solo female artist in Canadian history to receive an American gold record.
From Elvis Presley to Chet Atkins, more than 100 other artists have since covered “Snowbird” in languages including Czech, German, Swedish, Italian, Flemish and more.
On the 50th anniversary of the song’s success, Amplify spoke with the 75-year-old Murray and Catherine MacLellan (Gene’s daughter), who released a tribute to her dad in 2017 (If It’s Alright With You) that included “Snowbird.” The pair reminisced about this timeless Canadian classic—the first song inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame—sharing why the composition still resonates.
Amplify: This is such a seminal song. How did you discover it and what were your first impressions of this Gene MacLellan composition?
Murray: Gene was doing a guest spot on Don Messer’s Jubilee and Bill Langstroth, who I later married, was the producer of that show. Bill called me and said, ‘You have to hear the songs this guy has.’ Gene had recently sung ‘Snowbird’ on the show. I went down to the CBC building in Halifax and in a conference room I listened to a tape of a few of Gene’s songs. Afterwards, I asked Gene if I could take the tape and have the songs. Gene said, ‘Sure!’ I didn’t even know what I was asking for, but I was thinking of going in and doing an album. It was spring and I took those songs home over the summer and played them for my family and friends. Everybody loved them. ‘Just Bidin’ My Time’ and ‘Snowbird’ were the two in particular I really liked.
MacLellan: It’s a song I never get tired of. There is just something about it that is really beautiful … the way it comes out of your mouth when you sing it. It always astounded me that it was only the second song my dad ever wrote. It is so amazing that such an early song in his repertoire has gone so far around the world and is still being heard today.
Summer 1970 & a Cleveland DJs famous flip
Murray: That particular song just jumped off the album for some reason. The funny thing though it was not the A side. In those days, there were A-sides and B-sides. ‘Just Bidin’ My Time’ was the A side; ‘Snowbird’ was the B-side. A DJ in Cleveland flipped over the record and played ‘Snowbird’ on the air and all of a sudden radio started to play it all the time. There was just something about that song that resonated with people and, as they say, the rest is history!
Amplify: What was it about “Snowbird” that resonated with you, made you want to record it, and what does that song mean to you today?
Murray: Everything! In those days, I was pretty young. I listened to songs as a whole whereas today I’m more drawn to the lyrics. At that time, I just heard it, loved it, and played it for everybody … everybody reacted to it in such a positive way and felt the same way about it as I did. Singing ‘Snowbird’ is a bit of a vocal exercise. That is why I never really tired of singing it because it was so fun to do.
It was such a part of me. We were inseparable. Of all the songs I sang, even more than ‘Could I Have This Dance’ or ‘You Needed Me,’ ‘Snowbird’ was the song that started it all and was the one no matter how many hits I had, was the one people always seemed to go back to. It absolutely changed my life! A lot of people never ever have a hit record, but to have that as your first and have it achieve what it did was pretty amazing.
Amplify: It’s incredible to read the list of the hundreds of artists who subsequently covered “Snowbird”; from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn; Chet Atkins to Perry Cuomo.
Murray: Definitely. Bing Crosby even sang it. So many people were doing covers at that time, especially the older acts. I don’t know what it was, but it obviously hit them the same as me.
MacLellan: My daughter once did a school project on my dad and made a list of all the covers of ‘Snowbird’ … it was astounding.
Amplify: Of those hundreds of covers do you have a favourite?
MacLellan: I love the Chet Atkins version. Apparently, the ultimate Nashville tribute of honor is to give somebody one of your guitars. My dad gave Chet a guitar for that cover [which won the Grammy in 1972 for Best Country Instrumental Performance]. Apparently, it was a vintage Martin.
Amplify: I wonder if that was the guitar your dad wrote “Snowbird” on?
MacLellan: I don’t know. I have so many questions I would love to ask my dad and that is one of them. Every time he got on stage, he would always sing that song. He knew that people wanted to hear it. It gives me something to strive for in my own writing. My dad was only 56 when he died. It’s interesting to think what life was like when he wrote that song and how much it changed his life. At the time, he was working odd jobs in PEI and suddenly he had a music career that took him to LA and allowed him to be a songwriter for the rest of his life. It was a gift. He was a very diligent songwriter. He was not the dad that taught his kids how to fix a car, but he taught me how to be a diligent songwriter. I remember Ron Hynes asking me once, ‘when do we get our “Snowbird?”’