Tis the season to be radical with Morgan Daniels’ pick of Christmas songs

1Phil Ochs — No Christmas in Kentucky

The socialist singer-songwriter Phil Ochs spent the festive period of 1962 in Hazard, Kentucky, where he performed a number of gigs for the families of miners striking over the ‘modernisation’ of their industry.  Ochs was greatly moved by the experience, and would write a protest song, ‘No Christmas in Kentucky’, that described the desperation and poverty he had witnessed at first hand:

‘No they don’t have Christmas in Kentucky
There’s no holly on a West Virignia door
For the trees don’t twinkle when you’re hungry
And the jingle bells don’t jingle when you’re poor.’

2Run-D.M.C. — Christmas Is

The huge commercial success of Run-D.M.C. can scarcely be said to have come at the expense of the group’s sharp social commentary.  On Raising Hell (1987), for instance — the first rap album to go triple platinum — one song, ‘Proud to be Black’, celebrated the struggle against slavery, whilst another, ‘Wake Up’, called for full employment. David L. Moody goes so far as to say that Run-D.M.C. were ‘successful at creatively integrating socialist ideas, diverse musical elements, and cultural identification’ within their songs.

‘Christmas Is’, written for the 1992 charity compilation A Very Special Christmas 2, is fairly straightforward in its demands:

‘Fight poverty, give to the needy
Don’t be like The Grinch cause The Grinch is greedy.’

3Jim Connell — The Red Flag

Jim Connell wrote the words to ‘The Red Flag’ on the train from Charing Cross to Honor Oak Park in 1889, and had conceived that they would be sung to the upbeat Jacobite tune ‘The White Cockade’. In 1895, however, A.S. Headingley from the Social Democratic Federation set ‘The Red Flag’ to the old German Christmas hymn ‘O Tannenbaum’: this was also the tune of the complicated anti-war song ‘Maryland, My Maryland’, written in response to the 1861 Baltimore Riots. Whilst ‘The White Cockade’ is a suitable tune for a solo performance of ‘The Red Flag’, argues Ian Watson, it falls short of the requirements of public, collective performance.  The SDF ‘were exercising a correct aesthetic judgement in view of the planned function of the song.’

4Jeremy Paul, Leslie Stewart & Keith Strachan — Mistletoe and Wine

It is not Cliff Richard’s hellish 1988 version of Mistletoe and Wine with which we are concerned here, but rather the original, written twelve years previously for Scraps, a musical adaptation of Hans Christen Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.  The song was conceived as an ironic accompaniment to a scene in which a young girl is booted out onto the streets of a freezing Victorian London. Scraps co-writer Keith Strachan insisted: ‘it’s a socialist Christmas song. It was a song about the middle classes’ lack of concern.’

The below clip comes from The Little Match Girl, a 1987 televised ‘update’ of Scraps. Here the song, led by Twiggy, has morphed into a bawdy pub singalong.

5Arthur McBride (trad.)

This folk song, collected in Limerick in 1840, follows an unnamed narrator and his cousin, ‘one Arthur McBride’, out for a relaxing stroll by the sea on Christmas morning. They encounter three recruiting sergeants for the British army, who (unsuccessfully) encourage the pair to enter into military service with the promise of glory, clothing, and disposable income: Arthur pronounces that they will likely be sent off to France and killed.  

The version featured here is from Bob Dylan’s acoustic album Good As I Been To You (1992).

6Elton John — Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher

‘Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher
We all celebrate today
because it’s one day closer to your death.’

Quite the language for a knight of the realm! You can argue that this number, written for Billy Elliot: The Musical, is simply ‘in character’. Yet there is a real venom here — ‘Oh my darling Heseltine / you’re a tosser, you’re a tosser / and you’re just a Tory swine’ — befitting someone involved in AIDS activism since the 1980s.

7Steve Earle — Christmas in Washington

Steve Earle is a country and western singer, activist, and socialist who has made sixteen albums since 1982. ‘Christmas in Washington’ was written in response to the election of Bill Clinton as US president in 1996 and the triumph of liberal centrism; Earle surveys an America where ‘the unions have been busted’ and calls upon some of his dead heroes to return and save the day: Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, Joe Hill. Joan Baez covered ‘Christmas in Washington’ on her 2003 album Dark Chords on a Big Guitar.

8Lou Reed — Xmas in February

Tucked away near the end of his 1989 album New York, Lou Reed’s ‘Xmas in February’ emphasises in its own way the enduring relevance of ‘Arthur McBride’. A hundred and fifty years on, the army still comes a-calling for some of the most desperate in society:

‘Sammy was a short order cook in a
short order black and blue collar town
Everybody worked the steel mill but
the steel mill got closed down
He thought if he joined the Army
he’d have a future that was sound’

So he joined, was sent to Vietnam, lost an arm ‘in some border town’, and got hooked on opium to deal with the pain. Back home in the US, his wife and kids have left, he’s out of work:

‘He’s a reminder of the war that wasn’t won
He’s the guy on the street with the sign that reads
‘Please help send this Vet home’
But he is home
And there’s no Xmas in February
No matter how much he saves’

9Dolly Parton et al — Hard Candy Christmas

Dolly Parton’s first two feature films were hardly ‘safe’. In 9 to 5 (1980) she plays one of three working women who overthrow their sexist boss, whilst The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) starred Parton as a brothel ‘madam’, Miss Mona Stangley. Both films were trained on the realities of class and exploitation, and both gave rise to classic songs at once grim and empowering: ‘9 to 5’ and ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, the latter of which is set just after Stangley’s ‘whorehouse’ has been closed down.

‘When I thought about it,’ Parton reflected, ‘I thought well, well, this person, this lady, this madam, she is me, because I am just full of life and love and energy for all kinds of people, I have sampled enough of everything in life to say that I lived.  This lady, this character that I’m playin’, although I didn’t own a whorehouse, if I had not been as fortunate as I am, who knows what I could have been.’

10Paul Robeson — Silent Night

Not so much a radical Christmas song, this, as a Christmas song sung by a radical. Leaving a matinee performance of Show Boat at the Royal Albert Hall in 1929, Paul Robeson — the African-American singer, actor, athlete and all-round superstar — stumbled upon some unemployed miners singing in the street who had marched from Wales to London to protest their plight.  ‘[O]n impulse, he fell in with them’, according to Robeson’s son: the experience was vital in turning him into a socialist.  

It was his politics which meant that Robeson, at one point one of the most sought-after performers in the world, had his US passport revoked between 1950 and 1958.  During this time he gave a number of transatlantic concerts by telephone, including one to a packed audience in Wales, a country to which he persistently returned.

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