|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
Audio recording of the interview with Phoebe Snow (Laub)
|NARRATOR:||Phoebe Snow (Laub)|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||(Unknown - no backup data provided)|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (12/1985)|
(I) Good evening Phoebe. We are taping this little piece of your history and what you have contributed to Teaneck and what Teaneck has contributed to you. And I'd like you to start to tell me what some of your earliest recollections are of Teaneck. Tell us when you moved here and just start to talk.
(N) Well my family came here when I was three and we moved into a small three bedroom house on Palisade Avenue. As a matter of fact, it was 841 Palisade Avenue, how about that? And we go by that house all the time now and they've painted it yellow and turned the garage into something that has a storefront, it is not a garage any more. It looks like a little storefront shed or I don't know what it is but, I mean obviously I am not going to go up and knock on the door and say, who are you and why did you turn the garage into a ... and I remember that across the street from us was the Phelps Manor Market.
(I) On Palisade Avenue.
(N) Yeah. And Miss Vernon's School of Dance which I went to for a while.
(I) Ruth Vernon?
(N) Yes. Oh God, I didn't remember her first name. I am writing a book now so all of this is pretty fresh in my mind. And other than that, I remember just miles of Teaneck swamp and railroad track which is, the railroad tracks and the trains are very significant in my life. I used to play down, we'd call it down by the swamps when I was a little kid and a whole gang of us would go down there and hide in the weeds and wait for the trains to come and just, it was so romantic. And of course the Erie Lackawanna Railroad Line would freight its way through there several times a day and on one of the cars, the freight cars, was the name Phoebe Snow which was the route of the Phoebe Snow, which was the anthracite coal transport line and I think eventually until it became defunct was just a freighting line. It was just one of those big brick colored freight car things and the route of the Phoebe Snow was just a logo. Because I changed my name to Phoebe Snow as a result of that childhood experience on Palisade Avenue, I got all kinds of cards and letters from train buffs, you know, I think that the route of the Phoebe Snow became defunct in 1957 so they sent me all these pictures of these train grave yards and all these big freight cars that I hadn't seen in years and it was a little pang of memory there. But I used to, my name is Phoebe, not Snow, and that was the biggest I've ever seen my name in print so naturally I was very puffed up about that. And we stayed on Palisade Avenue until I was 12 and then we moved right around the corner and up the hill to Merrison Street to a slightly larger house with a much larger yard and my parent still live in that house today.
(I) Where did you go to grade school?
(N) I went to Eugene Field #8 which I hear doesn't exist anymore. Boo hoo.
(I) And then from there you went to high school.
(N) Junior high school. I went to Thomas Jefferson.
(I) What are your recollections of that?
(N) Very unpleasant. I was not, that's when I started to feel that I was going through my awkward years and I was not enjoying them. I was like, you know, I just didn't have a real happy time in junior high school. Everybody was starting to separate into cliques, you know, and it was like, it was a very pronounced bunch of people. I mean there were the athletic guys and gals and these are kids, I mean, at the time it seemed very important. Looking back on it now, it's like the same feeling you get when you read LORD OF THE FLIES. By the end of the book, you forget that these were children. They were breaking off into separate societies with separate codes and religions and ethics and it really got overwhelming for me that way. I mean not quite as overwhelming as LORD OF THE FLIES but it was like the idea of cliquish behavior was like real powerful to me because I just didn't, I was like a sort of an oddball, I didn't really fit in anywhere. And I was sort of marching to my own drummer, you know, so it was a real difficult time for me. People find it very hard to believe that even though I did join the chorus, I guess I was in the chorus in eighth grade and ninth grade, it is real hard to remember but I wasn't really that, I loved music but I was so shy and so frightened of what was going on in the social structure of school that I really didn't even realize that I was going to be a musician later on. I had no idea. It was very oppressive and I am sorry about that.
(I) That was in junior high. How about high school?
(N) A bit of the same, you know. I mean kids are kids. Kids have their things that they go by and it is really hard for me to describe what I am trying to say about that. Kids make their own rules and certain things are very important to kids that aren't important when you grow up. Popularity and no one even really knows what makes somebody popular. Nobody knows what makes somebody fit in here and not fit in here but they are very, very structured in their own little mini-society.
(I) Do you think that this experience you had is typical or unique?
(N) To be the oddball or to be a popular kid?
(I) Either but the oddball.
(N) Oh, it is typical to be either. To be an oddball, no, there weren't too many of us. In fact, I remember some of the other ones.
(I) And this you feel that Teaneck could have helped you in any way through the school system or do you think it is just human nature?
(N) Well having only been in one school system, it is hard to say but I wish there was something that could be done about those attitudes but it is tough with kids. I know it is. I don't have an easy answer to that question. I really don't.
(I) And your music career was aided by the school system?
(N) No, well it is such a large student body and there are only so many teachers and as I remember there was one chorus teacher. We are talking about singing here. You can't give that much individual attention to a kid in public school so it was hard to work on me separately. I mean maybe somebody recognized. I was very shy and I felt really overwhelmed by the number of kids in my class and my year so it is really hard for a teacher to say, hum, they can't be that sharp that they can pick out that one kid, public school is a tough situation. And Teaneck is no exception I am sure.
(I) What are your feelings about Teaneck Phoebe? Growing up here.
(N) I had a wonderful childhood and being a teenager was difficult and I have mixed memories. I have very fond ones and I have real kind of rotten ones but when anybody says the word Teaneck, every once in a while I will be in a, doing a show and someone will yell out, Teaneck, New Jersey, you know, because in all the interviews, of course I mentioned it. That's where I grew up. And it always, I feel a pang. Sure I do. I mean it is my home town.
(I) Were you involved in any of the social issues in Teaneck? For instance, we haven't established when you graduated from high school but were you there at the time we integrated our schools or was that earlier or later, I don't know.
(N) You mean they weren't integrated at one time. I guess I was there after. Oh boy, it was very integrated. That's something I am sure of. I didn't even know there was a problem with that. You're kidding? That's funny. I am going to learn something here.
(I) Well we want to learn from you. And you have a warm feeling about Teaneck. Can you tell us any of the things that perhaps any of the social institutions gave you, perhaps the library, the school system. Could you have grown up in any other town and been Phoebe Snow now or can't you tell?
(N) You really can't tell. That's a tough question to answer. I don't know that I would have gotten my professional name, without having the train across the street from me. But it is, no, I guess not. It is really hard to answer that question.
(I) But you still come back and you still feel warmth in Teaneck and the people you knew.
(N) Oh yeah. That's another thing. I made some livelong friends here that I still know today. I mean friends, I have one friend who is now a music business attorney and we met when we were six and she does some legal work for me once in a while. We are pals. I am going to see her this Sunday. And another friend I met in seventh grade who lives in Los Angeles now and just had a little son a year ago and I visit her whenever I am on the West Coast and her cousin who married a best friend of mine who live in upstate New York who I see all the time and I mean, we are talking about real serious friendships, best friends that never quite leave your life, you know.
(I) Tell us a little about your professional career now.
(N) Well I started recording in 1973 and I was discovered, I hate that word but I am putting it in quotes, in a club in the village, Greenwich village, in 1972 and a promotion man just came in and heard me sing and I went on to record my first album in 1973. It was released towards the end of 74 and it became a very successful record by mid-1975. There was a hit single on it and boom - everything took off and since then I've made five other albums. I haven't made an album in four years. And we are currently working on a big hush/hush thing. And there may be an album out pretty soon so that's what I can say about what's happening now.
(I) And you are still traveling and singing?
(N) Oh yeah, I always do that. Not as much as a lot of people do because I have a daughter at home and I. am very devoted to her and so I. go out like on three and four day clusters of dates where I go out and then come home for a while and then go out again.
(I) But you are awfully good. I've heard you sing.
(N) Thank you. I've read my reviews and I hear that they think I am good and I try not to stay too deeply in touch with what's being said about me and rather try to feel something about myself. That's one of the toughest tricks of this industry is to not listen to your critics and not, you should listen to your audience. Be careful of your critics. Because no matter what they say, you might believe them.
(I) Either good or bad.
(N) That's right. You can't take that too much to heart.
(I) But all in all, you'd live in Teaneck again if you could.
(N) Yeah. I think so. I think now being an adult and looking back, I mean whatever problems I had as a kid are definitely not insurmountable. I can certainly, I think well if only I did this and this and if I was raising a child in Teaneck, and I came home and they said anything like what sounded like what I went through, I would just say, don't do that. Work it out. Let's sit down and talk about it. There could be a more open dialogue in the school. There really could. I mean, I really wish I had an answer for that. I really wish I had an answer for that. I think, OK, I think that the student body in the public high school, especially there is one major public high school in a community the size of Teaneck, the student body is too big and the children who are all unique individuals get lost and I think the cliques are a mechanism they use for trying to identify themselves, if not as a unique person, with someone else who they might envision to be like them and that's where these, there were fraternities and sororities in my junior high school. I find that unbelievable today. I mean people are always questioning the tactics and games of fraternities and sororities but for twelve year olds to behave that way is just, to me it is a sign of like notice me, let me have something to identify with. I think adolescence is a time where getting in touch with one's identity is the most important thing in the world next to getting an education and if you can't identify yourself, you can't be confident enough to really put everything into your education and then it all gets lost in this giant overwhelming student body. Now I heard after I graduated that for a while I don't even know if they still have it but they were experimenting with something called a Free School. Do you know about that?
(I) Alternative School.
(N) Alternative School. Well somebody called it a Free School anyway. But that, yeah, it was the Alternative School. And a friend of, well the daughter of a friend of my parents went to this school. She asked permission, could she switch over and she loved it. She loved it. She blossomed. I 'mean I watched everything she went through. I didn't ever go there and didn't see what she was doing. I was about, I am trying to figure it out in my head how many years older than her, I think I was about four or five years older than her but it was just fascinating to see her dress code change, she is a shy kid and to see her expression change, you know, the way she expressed herself. She got more confident and more extroverted and I said, I wish they had had that because that's the first place I would have gone. I mean I felt all these things inside me and particularly my music, never had a chance to develop because there was a student population of 1,600, I don't remember how many people were in my graduating class in high school but I felt like every once in a while, I was going, I am over here, you know. Does anybody care that I am over here? I think it is too big. I think there should be more than one high school.
(I) Do you have any other general comments you'd like to make about Teaneck?
(N) Yeah, you brought up the subject of integration and segregation and I had to laugh. I saw a program, television program, I think it was on a cable news network, that quite frankly said that there was a big controversy going on because real estate agents steered black families that were in the market to buy a house to Teaneck and steered the white families away to Closter and Demarest and Dumont and people were up in arms about this. They said you are segregating these communities. I mean you are making them into racially segregated communities. And I know another thing, when I was in high school, it wasn't a major issue, looking back on it, but the black kids all were in their own space and the white kids very seldom crossed into that space. There were glaring cultural differences. I think they were frankly the white kids were afraid of the black kids. There was an aura created, we are over here and you are over there and I don't think you ought to cross this line. I mean I would see, just there was a lot of tension. More than actually being anything overt, anything that got crazy
(I) What year was this?
(N) This was all three years I was in high school. A year? 1967/66. Well now you know.
(I) We will cut that off if you want.
(N) Yeah, but it was around then. Let's just say 66. So it was in 1966 where I saw a girl I knew who was a white girl walking down the hall after lunch and it was the usual, it was like Grand Central Station in those halls, crowded, and I think she bumped against a black girl and the next think I knew, they were harassing her, they were following her down the hall saying things like don't bump into me and watch where you are going and they ended up just kicking her and sending her flying and it was like, that's the only time I've seen that tension actually expressed. I am really insisting that there was never anything that I ever saw in the school other than something like overcrowding that made it look like racial tension but there was, I know there was an undercurrent of it. It was always there and very separate, you know - you are here, I am there.
And I have to say this too, because you did ask me about my career. There has been a lot of ambiguity about my racial background. You find that hard to believe? When my first record came out, there was something about the cover picture which is a photograph of my profile that made people believe that I was black. I think it has something to do with my hair and something to do with my features and I was readily accepted by a black audience. A lot of the people who come to see me are black. And a lot of the people who come to see me are white and a lot of the people who come to see me are Chinese for all I know.
But in my industry there is a format consciousness. Now what I mean by that, they say black radio, I mean these are music industry expressions, black radio A.O.R. radio which means album-oriented which is generally a rock and roll, white rock and roll, I mean believe it or not, these terminologies exist and they would say, well what is Phoebe Snow and many people would just very naturally go, she is black and she is doing a kind of rhythm and blues music. Looking back on high school, it is like I've been both worlds at close range at this point and it is like I don't think, I think one of the saddest things about high school is that there is not an open dialogue about what really are, through no fault of anybody, cultural differences. I mean over the hundreds of years that this country has been around, black people have had their own cultural space. I've gotten real in touch with it because I've been accepted by the black community.
To this day, as a matter of fact I just got invited to be on the American Black Music Awards. I am sorry, it wasn't music. American Black Achievement Awards. They asked me to be a presenter of an award. And I said, you know, I don't mind because it turned out there was going to be black and white people on the show but I said are you asking me because, and they said, well we thought you were. As it turned out, they did think I was, you know, and it is like black and white. It sounds so sterile. Black and white. It is like people and the only thing that creates misunderstanding is the fact that there are natural hundreds of years old cultural differences and if we could just put our fear aside and try to figure out what those differences are, it is like black kids may grow up differently in some respects than white kids do. They use different languages. The semantics are what's really amazingly different. But if you could just put those barriers down, I mean people learn foreign languages all the time and within this country, the black language and the white language are almost like foreign to each other and in Teaneck High School, believe me, that was never even thought about or anywhere else for that matter and I can't single Teaneck out but that's where I grew up.
But there is a huge black community and a huge Jewish community and a huge white Christian community and it is like let's stop being so afraid of each other. Let's all talk to each other. I mean I became an honorary black woman for several years and I as a result of that I can understand, you know what I mean. I've seen it from that .. like I crossed the color line. It is hilarious but it shouldn't have to be that way.
One night I was standing up on stage in Washington, DC and I was playing to a crowd of about 19,000 black people and I was afraid and what was I afraid of? I was afraid when I thought about it that I am not black and they are going to find me out and I know they are all here because they have this feeling that I am and there is like a feeling, like a kindred spirit feeling. And all of a sudden I said to myself, so what, you know. So what, so what if they find out I am white. You know what I mean. It is like what a great ambassador of good will between the ethnic races I could be. You know, I could, it is like the same thing as, I don't want to sound like I am blowing my horn or anything but it occurred to me that this is a beautiful thing I have here. What am I so afraid of and what is everybody so afraid of? It's, what they're afraid of is their cultural differences from birth but nobody's tried to break the barrier. Nobody has ever tried to sit there and say, all right, so you talk different than we, some of us eat different foods than others and some of us, our interpretation of the religions of the world is a little different than yours are but so what? But nobody has actually come forward and said that mean there was a lot of talk about Michael Jackson appealing to a very mixed audience. He had as many white people in his audience, in fact more, than he had black people over this big series of concerts he did over the summer and he is an ambassador of good will because he has broken the color barrier and in my own little humble way, well that's what I guess I did and I guess if the color and the race barrier is what I just described it to be as I first perceived it in high school, then it is very breakable but everybody is too afraid to try.
(I) It is because you have everybody so terrified.
(N) Even me. I mean I was scared and I think it is just something that's got to be done and it's got to start when your personality is forming which is when you are a child which is why I know busing wasn't such a good idea, I am sure, but getting all these kids together in one room and just saying, all right, so you are here now. What's the big deal? You look different? OK, fine. I look different from you. So fine. You probably look different from somebody you know. It's, I just went off on a tangent.
(I) That's perfectly lovely. Thank you so much.
(N) You are welcome. I just went off on a tangent there.
(I) But I guess, unless you have, we will end the interview and I just want to say thank you very much.
(N) Oh, you are welcome.
(END OF TAPE)