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Morgan Daniels' pick of radical Christmas songs

1. Laura Nyro — Christmas in My Soul (1970)

The closing song on Laura Nyro’s beautiful Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970) is this searing seven-minute indictment of ‘the sins of politics’. Written shortly after the Kent state massacre, ‘Christmas in My Soul’ surveys a rotten America, a country, Nyro sings, that she loves ‘as it dies’. She catalogues a culture of ‘war and pain’, making reference to the imprisonment and persecution of Black Panthers, Native American activists, and the Chicago Seven. Importantly, however, this is also a song about resistance, a call to arms. Nyro concludes:  

Now the time has come to fight
Laws in the book of love burn bright
People, you must win for thee, America,
Her dignity for all the high court
World to see
On Christmas

2. Akim and Teddy Vann — Santa Claus is a Black Man (1973)

Perhaps ‘Santa Claus is a Black Man’ — a sweet take on ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ — is a ‘novelty’ record. But not all novelty records come with a cover featuring a five year old girl and her father performing Black Power salutes. The five year old girl is Akim, who performs ‘Santa Claus’, and her father is Teddy Vann, the song’s author. ‘Santa Claus’ revolves around Akim unveiling a big secret: 

Santa Claus is a black man, Santa Claus is a black man
And he’s handsome like my daddy too
Santa Claus is a black man, Santa Claus is a black man
And I found out, that’s why I’m telling you.

Akim later explained that, as cute as ‘Santa Claus’ might be, her father had radical intentions with the song. In fact, its cuteness was rather the point:

American slavery gave birth to the definition of the word ‘black’ becoming something that was not so good. If you look it up in the dictionary, ‘black’ is going to have all these negative connotations, and unfortunately as an African American, as a black child or as black people, you can't help but be affected by that. He was redefining what it meant to be black, in terms of positive, beautiful imagery being associated with that word.  

3. Here We Come A-Wassailing (trad.)

Wassailing is an ancient ritual, typically performed on Twelfth Night, in which revellers either visit orchards and sing to the trees, or roam from house to house, drinking freely, and demanding in song that the rich give donations of food and booze. One version of the traditional wassailing song, recorded in Gloucestershire in the nineteenth century and published in the Oxford Book of Carols, goes like this:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.

It is obviously the case that the wassailing ritual in many senses offers no threat to the existing order and indeed reinforces social class, allowing the wealthy to take part in a sanctioned performance of charity. But as Dominic Alexander once noted on this site, wassailing is usually immanent with threat. Note what might become of the butler if he’s stingy in his offering! Alexander argued:

The appeal is not simply a pathetic plea to think of those wandering in the mire, but to the ‘harm’ or misfortunes that might occur to those who do not observe their festive obligations. The last line is particularly direct, since the master and missus will be blessed, having provided for the carollers, until they come again.

4. Gil Scott-Heron — Spirits Past (1994)

Spirits, released in 1994, was Gil Scott-Heron’s first record for twelve years, and a very important one. Its opening track, ‘Message to the Messengers’, was a critique of contemporary rap, whilst ‘Work for Peace’ the ideological basis for the Gulf War (‘The military and the monetary / get together whenever they think it’s necessary’). ‘Spirits Past’ is a sort of sorrowful companion piece to this latter song, a quiet, festive lament concerned with the never-ending nature of Western ‘intervention’:

It's getting to be the time of year
When people once spoke of love and good cheer
Peace on earth and good will to our men
And we all believed that there'd come a day
When peace would be much more than on its way
'Cause peace has been on its way since I don't know when

5. Arthur Prysock - A Working Man’s Prayer (1967)

Originally recorded by the country musician Ed Bruce in 1964, ‘A Working Man’s Prayer’ is a desperate, sad song, a plea by a beleaguered labourer for God’s assistance in making ends meet: 

Lord, put your hand to
The handle of my hoe
Let me make another step
Let me grow another row

Even though I'm tired
Got to try to make a dollar
For my wife and kids
Living over in the holler

[..]

Well, with no money
And Christmas a-coming
A man's mind takes funny turns
And for a minute
I thought to blame you, Lord
But I know better than that

The above is typical of what we might think of as a gut-level affinity for the worker within the American songwriting tradition, something that cuts right across musical genres no less than political alignment. A case in point is the trajectory taken by ‘A Working Man’s Prayer’. Ed Bruce’s original is pretty standard country fare, its words half-sung, half-spoken over a relatively bland bit of noodling. Those same words are equally suited to Arthur Prysock’s deep, baritone voice and a jazz arrangement.

Neither Bruce nor Prysock were political radicals.  But their appeal for God’s hand in labour (an echo, consciously or otherwise, of the eighteenth-century German hymn ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’) cuts through ‘common sense’ economic reasoning that it is another invisible hand—the market—which makes things tick.

6. Shane MacGowan and the Popes - Christmas Lullaby (1996)

‘I hope you grow up angry’ implores the narrator to his son on this, Shane MacGowan’s other Christmas song. What should he be angry about? MacGowan answers that question fairly explicitly:

Here’s to all the little kids
Who haven't got no clothes
Here’s to all the little kids
Who haven't got no homes
It's Christmas time in Palestine
It's Christmas in Beirut
They're scrapping 'round for rice
Not for tutti fruits

There is something so powerful about hearing these words within the context of a song that is so unmistakably Irish. Anti-imperialist to the hilt, MacGowan reminds us that if there is poverty and hunger over there and far away, their causes are very close to home. It’s not exactly Band Aid.

7. Allen Ginsberg - Come Back Christmas (1971)

Ginsberg first performed ‘Come Back Christmas’ in December 1971 at St Mark’s Church in New York City’s East Village. It captures a grim moment in New York’s history: throughout the 1960s the city had been in marked decline, in part because of the innovation of containerisation and the subsequent shift of maritime industry to New Jersey. Soaring crime rates and the development of large immigrant communities made New York in the sixties and seventies a target of much venom from the American right, who were only too happy to see the city burn to the ground.

Gay, Jewish, and a vocal anti-war activist, Allen Ginsberg was everything the right hated. Backing himself on the harmonium, Ginsberg sings of a city that is ‘dead on her big stone feet’, asking of Santa Claus: ‘bring me a big mass transport / garbage disposal system too / clean my police force / so my boyfriends won’t sniff so much glue’.

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8. Was (Not Was) - Christmas Time in the Motor City (1981)

Another song of urban decline, one written just before the catastrophic election of Ronald Reagan as US President. Was (Not Was) were an idiosyncratic response to neoliberal America, fusing disco, pop, rock, and spoken word elements to frequently breathless effect. ‘Christmas Time in the Motor City’ is quintessential Was (Not Was): deranged, frenetic, and yet deadly serious, detailing the ruination of the band’s hometown of Detroit. The song records the effects of Detroit’s mass unemployment accelerated by the 1970s oil crises, with Santa out of work, shaving in the Cadillac Hotel, and living off benefits (but without food stamps).   

9. Ry Cooder - Christmas Time This Year (2011)

Ry Cooder’s fourteenth studio album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (2011), is an angry affair, taking shots at casino capitalism, white flight, and anti-immigration politics.  One highlight of the record, ‘Christmas Time This Year’, reflects on the perpetual cycle of misery and failure that is the War on Terror:

Our boys and girls will be here soon coming home from war
I'm so glad it's Christmas time this year
But they'll be going back to war again I fear
Can't they stay for Christmas time this year

Now Johnny ain't got no legs and Billy ain't got no face
Do they know it's Christmas time this year?
Tommy looks about the same but his mind is gone
Does he know it's Christmas time this year?

Like all the best anti-war songs, ‘Christmas Time This Year’ is at once topical and universal: born of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan whilst descriptive of Western imperialism past, present, and future.

10. Lord Buckley — Scrooge (1960)

We finish this year with a spoken word offering: a wild retelling of A Christmas Carol by the American comedian-come-performance artist, Lord Buckley. I say spoken word, but Buckley never really spoke: his words bounced, flew, collided one into the other in a counter-intuitive tumult. This style was informed greatly by Buckley’s socialising with jazz musicians in Chicago in the 1930s. As such, putting aside the content of Buckley’s performances—he was outspoken on civil rights and the nuclear bomb, in particular—his work stands as radical in style. For the socialist academic Ursula Huws, Buckley ‘was an important figure, not least because he first introduced us to a kind of Black American hipster slang we had not come across before, although much of it later entered the hippy mainstream. I think he was the first person I heard referring to the police as “the fuzz”’.

Elizabeth Hanson, who was married to Buckley for fifteen years, said that he frequently enraged audiences by telling the truth. One night, she recounted, he told an audience: ‘You all have too much money and you don’t know what to do with it’ (Buckley and Hanson had to leave the theatre via the back door and jump in a car). It is interesting to recall this anecdote whilst listening to ‘Scrooge’, in particular the passage below and its description of the title character’s ‘big money mind’:

So Scrooge takes off and he cuts on down the street.
And the snow's blowin' and da winds is wooooooooin',
and Scrooge is goin' along in his loose soul
and his loose clothes and his hard cash box
and his big money mind goin' on in his wig
and he ding ding ding up da stairs
and he open his door and he gets inside
and he puts a double lock on da door
cause he a little bugged tonight.

There is, at the very least, a gentle anti-capitalism about Lord Buckley. And as those wassailers remind us, overthrowing the rich is what Christmas is all about.

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