Christmas can be a time of liberation. Morgan Daniels gives his yearly take on the season’s radical tunes

Past radical Christmas songs collections: 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021

1. Langston Hughes/Sweet Honey in the Rock — The Ballad of Harry T. Moore (1952)


Late in the day on 25 December 1951, Harry and Harriette Moore retired to bed in their home in Mims, Florida, having celebrated not just Christmas but their silver wedding anniversary. Moments later, they became the first martyrs of the civil rights movement: an improvised bomb had been placed directly under their bedroom floor, probably by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Harry died en route to hospital; Harriette passed away nine days later. It is clear why the Moores were targeted: Harry had founded the Brevard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People back in 1934 and was the organisation’s first Executive Secretary in Florida. Both Harriette and Harry had been fired from their jobs as teachers for their activism with the NAACP.

The great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes responded to the murder of the Moores in a furious poem published in 1952. In ‘The Ballad of Harry T. Moore’, which Hughes performed live multiple times, the story of Christmas Day 1951 is intercut with stock festive imagery to haunting effect:

Oh, memories of a Christmas evening
When to Bethlehem there came
“Peace on earth, good will to men”–
Jesus was His name.
But they must’ve forgotten Jesus
Down in Florida that night
Stealing through the orange groves
Bearing hate and dynamite.

In 2001 the all-female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock set Hughes’ words to music. The result is gut-wrenching, and yet, with its refrain of ‘Freedom never dies I say / Freedom never dies’, it is empowering, too—a landmark civil rights protest song half a century in the making.

2. James Connolly — A Festive Song (1909)

The Edinburgh-born socialist James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, was a great believer in song as a political tool. ‘No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression’ he wrote in the introduction to his edited collection, Songs of Freedom by Irish Authors (1907).  ‘Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.’

To this end, Connolly composed a number of poems intended for a mass audience, one of which, ‘A Festive Song’ is perfect Christmas fare:

Comrades, clasp hands,
The time demands
This night we spend enjoying
The jovial word
Round festive board
Grim, carking care destroying.
[…]
Then fill the cup
With liquor up,
Pledge ev’ry man his neighbour
That in the light
Of Truth he’ll fight
To win the world for Labour.

What a sweet song this is, a celebration of humans as social animals, an ode to connection and camaraderie and indeed happiness itself—all the while pledging to make the world anew.   

3. Robert Coster — The Diggers Christmas-Carroll (1650)

The Diggers were a group of agrarian proto-communists who in 1649 began reclaiming enclosed land for the common good. Their campaign took authority from the Book of Acts: ‘And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’ Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, explained: ‘In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury but not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.’

Winstanley and co. had their fair share of tunes, most famous of which is ‘Diggers’ Song’ (‘But the gentry must come down, and the poor shall wear the crown / Stand up now, Diggers all’). Robert Coster, a Digger poet, produced a festive song in a similar vein in 1650:

Therefore let me advise
All those which Freedom prise,
To Till each Heath and Plain,
For this will Freedom gain:
Heriots and Fines this will expell,
A bondage great men know full well.

One cannot help but detect the spirit of the Diggers in our next entry.

4. Woody Guthrie — Jesus Christ (1940)

He went to the preacher, He went to the sheriff
He told them all the same
‘Sell all of your jewelry and give it to the poor,’
And they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.

If Christmas is a time for celebrating the life of Jesus, then you’d be hard pushed to find a better song for the season than Woody Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’. Woody isn’t bullshitting here. His image of a radical Christ calling for the redistribution of wealth is no gimmick. Writing in his diary in 1941, Guthrie put it like this: 

‘Every single human being is looking for a better way … when there shall be no want among you … when the Rich will give their goods into [sic] the poor. I believe in this Way. I just can’t believe in any other Way. This is the Christian Way and it is already on a big part of the earth and it will come. To own everything in Common. That’s what the bible says. Common means all of us. This is pure old Commonism.’

Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’ is wholly sincere; a convincing mix of Marx and scripture. It’s that sincerity which makes the song—an ingredient missing in the 1988 cover version by bad Irish band U2.

5. Bessie Smith — At the Christmas Ball (1925)

There is something awe-inspiring in the unabashed debauchery of ‘At the Christmas Ball’, in Bessie Smith’s celebration of partying hard, living well. ‘Christmas comes but once a year’ she sings, ‘and to me it brings a good cheer / And to everyone who likes wine and beer’. Towards the end of the song, Bessie lays down the rules on dancing at the Christmas ball: ‘If your partner don’t act fair, don’t worry, there’s some more over there’.

The key to this joyous song lies right at the very beginning, when a band member exclaims: ‘Hey Bessie—Christmas gift!’ This seemingly innocuous line is heavy with the weight of recent history. In the nineteenth century, a festive tradition developed whereby slaves could ‘win’ a present if they were able to creep up on plantation owners and say ‘Christmas gift!’—the sort of game which shows those in power to be jolly sorts, thus cementing structures of oppression.

Bessie Smith’s joy for life, then, packs quite the political punch. Here is a working-class black woman sounding as free as can be, extolling the virtues of letting your hair down, yet reminding us that she is singing in the Jim Crow era. It’s a remarkable recording.

6. James Montgomery — Angels from the Realms of Glory (1816)

James Montgomery first published ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ on Christmas Eve 1816 in the radical Sheffield Iris newspaper, of which he was editor. A poet, hymn-writer, and abolitionist, Montgomery was twice sent to prison in the 1790s for taking brave editorial positions: first for printing a poem celebrating the storming of the Bastille, and later for reporting on the brutal repression of a protest in Sheffield in which two people were killed by a local militia.

In light of Montgomery’s background, it is interesting to note that the fifth verse of ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, usually omitted from contemporary performances, goes like this:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you—break your chains

Secreted away in a hymn calling upon one and all to worship the baby Jesus is a remarkable, even seditious idea, justice and mercy liberating society’s imprisoned, metaphorically or otherwise. The message is vague, but coming from a committed opponent of slavery, it is hard to ignore the image of broken chains.

7. Boleslaw Strzelewicz — Arbeiter-Stille-Nacht (1900)

In the final third of the nineteenth century, a trend developed in Germany for what the historian Joe Perry calls ‘socialist intervention’ in Christmas music. Carols and hymns were regularly reworked by the left with lyrics calling for revolution or imagining a socialist future. A fine appropriation in this spirit was ‘Arbeiter-Stille-Nacht’ (‘Worker’s Silent Night’) by Boleslaw Strzelewicz, a Polish theatre performer:

Silent night, dark night
Working folk, arise and fight!
Pledge to struggle in all holiness
Until humanity’s Christmas exists
Until freedom is here.

We might think of these ‘updated’ festive tunes as a sideshow, but the authorities certainly took them seriously: ‘Arbeiter-Stille-Nacht’ was banned by the German government for being a ‘danger to the state’. Popular festive culture and revolutionary socialism were evidently deemed a perilously potent mix.  Now there’s a thought!

8. The Red Berets — Arise Ye Proletariat (1984)

On 30 November 1984, hundreds of mostly-female workers went on strike across six Eaton’s department stores in southern Ontario. Incensed by the low pay and insecurity that were endemic in the service industry, they had recently joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. But Eaton’s management refused to negotiate.

So it was that Eaton’s staff withdrew their labour right at the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. The timing of the strike hit profits hard; it also provided an ideal opportunity for festive singalongs on picket lines. As Christmas approached, The Red Berets, a group of ‘socialist feminist women who like to sing’, worked with strikers to rewrite some traditional carols for the occasion: ‘Silent Night, We’re on Strike’, ‘O Come All Ye Shoppers’. My favourite is ‘Arise Ye Proletariat’, with its demands for revolutionary change: 

Arise ye proletariat, let nothing you dismay
We all could buy more presents if we got better pay
We wish that we could overthrow the government today 
Bringing tidings of comfort and joy

The strike would last half a year, and resulted in Eaton’s employees winning first contracts; these contracts, however, offered little improvement in working conditions. Yet the dispute highlighted the speed with which previously unorganised workers could affect change, and lives on in the memory of the Canadian labour movement. In 2014 the story of the strike was told in Life on the Line, a play by Patricia McDermott from which the above recording is taken.

9. George Robert Sims — Christmas Day in the Workhouse (1877)

And here’s a wholly different use of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’.

In 1877 the liberal journalist George Robert Sims published ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ under the pseudonym Dagonet in the sports paper The Referee. It is a straightforward bit of melodrama highlighting the appalling conditions which workhouse inmates endured:

It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse,
And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables,
For this is the hour they dine.
And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They’ve paid for — with the rates. 

Sims was by no means by a radical, but like Dickens, he was attuned to and appalled by the contradictions of society under industrial capitalism. It is for this reason that his work is of tremendous worth to us today, and why ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’, in particular, has travelled such a long way, undergoing numerous adaptations. A bawdy parody of the poem was famously popular in the trenches in the First World War.  

The version above is a nineteenth-century reworking, performed a cappella by Tuli Kuperberg, co-founder of the rock group The Fugs. For Kupferberg, ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ still resonated. ‘Well, it’s going on today’ he explained. ‘Blaming poverty on the poor. Well, if it wasn’t for the poor, there wouldn’t be any poverty. Or rich either.’

10. Crass — Merry Crassmass (1981)

‘Merry Crassmass’ by the anarchist punk band Crass is one big joke, and a very funny one at that.  Released in December 1981, this single comprised two jaunty instrumental medleys played on a Casio keyboard, Christmas standards and muzaked Crass originals blending one into the other. Side A, for instance, sees ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’ give way to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. If you plan to listen right to the end of Side B, it’s best not to do so in polite company.

With thanks to Joe Perry at George State University for kindly sharing his insights into ‘Arbeiter-Stille-Nacht’.

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