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Who was Phoebe Snow?

Dear Cecil:

I once saw the Alvin Ailey dance group perform a piece entitled "The Ballad of Phoebe Snow." As I recall, the handbill listed this piece as having been created sometime in the 60s. Is this the same Phoebe Snow who had the hit song "Poetry Man"? What's the connection, if any?

Kent R., Chicago

Cecil replies:

You bet, Kent — Phoebe Snow is a pop singer, “a rolling stone gathers no moss” is a Mick Jagger-Keith Richards lyric, and Western Civilization dawned circa 1963. People nowadays have the historical awareness of squirrels.

Phoebe Snow was the invention of the advertising department of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, which has long since been merged into Conrail. She was created in 1900 by artist Penrhyn Stanlaus, and her name and garb — always white from heat to foot — were chosen to symbolize the cleanliness of DL&W trains, which burned “smokeless” anthracite coal instead of the soft bituminous coal used by most other roads at the time. The ad campaign — a very famous one — also employed actresses who appeared as Phoebe at special events and civic celebrations (a la Ronald McDonald), as well as jingles that eventually became so popular they were sung from the Broadway stage:

Says Phoebe Snow about to go

Upon a trip to Buffalo

My gown stays white from morn ’til night

Upon the road of anthracite.

When the government prohibited the use of anthracite coal in steam locomotives during World War I, Phoebe was retired, but she reappeared in white military garb during World War II to dramatize the Lackawanna’s contributions to the effort. In 1949 the DL&W inaugurated its first streamliner passenger run — Hoboken, N.J. to Buffalo, N.Y. — and the train was named the Phoebe Snow. After merger with the Erie railroad in 1960, Phoebe’s run was extended to Chicago; she died of the disappearing railroad blues in 1966.

Cecil Adams

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