Here’s a clip featuring singer-songwriter with an eye for three-dimensional characters as well as get-in-your-head melodies, Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Strawberry Blonde” as taken from 1997’s modestly-titled Other Songs, Sexsmith’s second album. It’s a tale of childhood trauma, yet with many emotional currents that give it tremendous substance; regret, nostalgia, pathos, grief.
This tune, now a popular live staple for Sexsmith, would be an indication of a few things where Sexsmith the writer is concerned. First, it proves that his musical well is a deep one, maintaining his level of quality established on his excellent, and critically lauded self-titled debut.
Second, it proves that Sexsmith is something of a throwback as a songwriter, back to the times when songs were about something, with this particular track being among one of the best examples. Like many songwriters cut from similar cloth, Ron Sexsmith touches upon a range of human experience in his work. But, he’s better able than many to embody those experiences in the lives of people in his songs. We care about the little girl “Amanda” because she has a life of her own in his song. And perhaps, we care about her because we’ve known people in our lives like her.
So, where did Amanda come from?
In being at the playground with his young son around the time this song was written, Sexsmith observed a little red-haired girl whom his son had befriended. As it turned out, the little girl was being looked after temporarily by her grandmother while her mother was in rehab. The mix of the sheer innocence of the the little girl in the playground, and the experience of the hardship of drug addiction and its emotional by-products in the lives of the many it affects became the heart of the song.
The character of Amanda is strikingly real in this song, and Sexsmith has had to break the illusion on at least one occasion. From his short sleeve notes series, talking about “Strawberry Blonde”:
I remember one time a man came up to me in France and asked me where Amanda was today and that he wanted to meet her and help her somehow. I had to break it to him that she was just a fictional character and I think he was a little heart broken about it… kinda how I felt when I found out Sherlock Holmes was a work of fiction too. [read the full sleeve notes for Other Songs]
With all of this in mind, the figure of Amanda is still one that makes us think about the complexity of childhood, and how the quality of that childhood can shape an adult life. In this song, all of the hardship is eventually overcome to the degree that Amanda is seen many years later, with a daughter of her own. One gets the sense that in this song, Amanda has come out alright. Yet, there is also a sense of lost opportunity, that even if Amanda was a survivor, how much more potential was lost in not really knowing her, and in not having her as a close friend?
That too is a pretty universal experience; the friend we never got a chance to know.
Find out more about Ron Sexsmith at the official Ron Sexsmith site.