Following last year's pick, Morgan Daniels gives us ten more radical Christmas songs
1Woody Guthrie — 1913 Massacre
On Christmas Eve 1913, five months into a strike that would last until April 1914, hundreds of members of the Western Federation of Miners (WMF) and their families held a party at the Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan. Back in July the WMF had successfully balloted both to demand a conference with employers on wages and working conditions, and for strike action if (as proved to be the case) this was rejected.
At one point in the evening of the party a cry of ‘Fire!’ came from within the Italian Hall, and a panic ensued, leading to the deaths of 73 people, 59 of them children. It remains unclear who yelled ‘Fire!’, or why—but Woody Guthrie was fairly convinced he knew the answer: ‘The copper boss' thugs stuck their heads in the door / One of them yelled and he screamed, "there's a fire"’.
2Placide Chappeau, Adolphe Adam — O Holy Night
In 1847, Placide Chappeau — a poet, wine merchant, and lapsing Catholic — was commissioned to write a Christmas carol by his parish priest in Roquemaure, southern France. The result was ‘O Holy Night’, which was then set to music by Placide’s friend Adolphe Adam. Its redemptive message was enthusiastically received by parishioners at its debut at Midnight Mass.
Yet several years later ‘O Holy Night’ would be banned by the Catholic Church on account of its being ‘totally without the spirit of religion’. Most probably a large factor in this decision was Chappeau’s embracing of socialism (and his now-complete denunciation of Catholicism); what’s more, it was discovered that Adam was Jewish. But the song lived on, accruing ever-more radical meaning along the way — most notably after the American Unitarian Minister John Sullivan Dwight translated it in 1855. ‘O Holy Night’ subsequently resonated profoundly in the North during the American Civil War: ‘Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.’
The version we have selected here is by the American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, it was Jackson who famously encouraged Martin Luther King to go off-script during his speech at the 1963 March on Washington by yelling ‘Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!’
3The Shurfine Singers — Silent Night & the 11 O’Clock News
Simon and Garfunkel pulled this trick first. In 1966 they recorded ‘Silent Night’ for their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, and then put it into violent juxtaposition with a reading of the 7 o’clock news, a hymn of peace jostling for position with reports of the death of Lenny Bruce and a clampdown on anti-war protests.
Several artists produced their own Silent Night/news bulletin sound collages during the Vietnam War, but this 1968 version by The Shurfine Singers, a one-off gospel group assembled by Wendell Parker, founder of Shurfine Records, is perhaps the best. It is haunting yet beautiful.
4William Morris — Masters in This Hall
William Morris was still about twenty years away from becoming a socialist when he wrote ‘Masters in This Hall’, but this Christmas ditty is nevertheless alert to class and inequality. Set to the tune of ‘Marche Pour Les Matelots’, an eighteenth century French dance number, ‘Masters in This Hall’ tells the story of a poor man from a rural background bringing news of the birth of Christ:
God to-day hath poor folk raised
And cast a-down the proud
Pete Seeger, the American folk singer and Communist, recorded Masters in This Hall for his beautiful 1967 collection Traditional Christmas Carols.
5Go Tell it on the Mountain
Collected by John Wesley Jr. in 1907, this African-American spiritual celebrates the birth of Christ:
Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
Our Jesus Christ is born
‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ took on a new life in the 1960s when the American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer combined it with another spiritual, ‘Go Down Moses’, turning it explicitly into an anthem of liberation:
Go tell it on the mountain
To let my people go
6Phillips Brooks — O Little Town of Bethlehem
Phillips Brooks was an Episcopalian minister mostly based in Massachusetts. He was also an ardent abolitionist, and when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Brooks delivered an extraordinary, grief-ridden sermon decrying the ‘sin of the system … the barbarism of Slavery.’
A short few months afterwards, Brooks took to the road—he felt impelled to visit Bethlehem at Christmas. He would recall this journey in his 1868 poem ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. If the words of ‘O Little Town’ are inseparable from anti-slavery struggle, we have also have a socialist, Ralph Vaughan Williams, to thank for its music: in 1906 Williams set Brooks’ poem to the tune of ‘The Ploughboy’s Dream’, an English folk song which he had heard ‘sung by a labourer’ in Forest Green, Surrey.
7Elvis Costello — Shipbuilding
Perhaps it is a push to call this anti-Falklands War song a Christmas number, but it is most certainly radical. Elvis Costello wrote Shipbuilding in April 1982, before the sinking of the Belgrano; the conflict was over by June. Yet Shipbuilding begins with the promise of ‘a new winter coat’, and later includes a memorable line playing on First World War jingoism and optimism: ‘The boy said they’re going to take me to task / But I’ll be home by Christmas’.
It is curious to note that 2000 Miles by The Pretenders was written at more-or-less the same time as Shipbuilding. In this seasonal staple cut through with loss and wistfulness, Chrissie Hynde seems to be echoing some of the same sentiments as Costello, consciously or otherwise: ‘The children will sing / He’ll be back at Christmas time’.
8‘F.’ — The People Shall Have Their Own Again
In 1842 the mysterious ‘F.’ contributed the following lyric to the poetry column of the Chartist publication, the Northern Star:
Time gone the Suffrage was possessed by every man,
And Old England then was a happy land to see
It was joyful in the hall, and in the cottage small,
And the poorest man could merry, merry be,
Then gladsome was the sound as the yule went round,
Of the song and the glee at Christmas time
And happy as the day were our firesides gay,
For the rich thought the mirth of the poor no crime.
No red coats had we then to threaten honest men,
But the people guarded their homesteads free
And their challenge was, woe to the tyrant or foe
Who dares set foot on our isle of the sea
The above exemplifies the ‘Merry England’ strand in the Chartist movement, one which ‘imagined a once-upon-a-time golden era of English liberties and prosperity that was now lost but could be revived’, writes Gerry Bowler. ‘In such a world Christmas represented social conviviality and solidarity.’
9Leon Rosselson — Song of the Mother Xmas Union
The Father Xmas Union was founded in 1969 by the community arts organisation Inter-Action. Its aim, recalls the socialist singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson, was ‘to protect children’s fantasies from exploitation by religious and commercial interests’. ‘I wrote a song for the Father Xmas Union which I have no memory of now’, Rosselson adds helpfully.
What survives, however, is ‘Song of the Mother Xmas Union’, written in the same period. Rosselson continues: ‘The Mother Xmas Union was formed later as a necessary counterpart to the FXU; a merger was proposed, accepted and effected’. Rosselson’s short feminist tune sees women withdraw their Yuletide labour: ‘We’ve made the last supper / And we’ve made the last bed / And we’re going to join the Mother Xmas Union instead’.
10Arlo Guthrie — The Pause of Mr Claus
Just as we started with a Guthrie, so shall we end with one. This goofy song, collected on the 1968 live album Arlo, has fun with the idea of an un-American, communist, pacifist, drug-smoking Santa. ‘This next song we're going to dedicate to a great American organisation’ explains Guthrie. ‘Tonight I'd like to dedicate this to our boys in the FBI. Well, wait a minute. It's hard to be an FBI man. I mean, first of all, being an FBI man, you have to be over 40 years old. And the reason is that it takes at least 25 years with the organisation to be that much of a bastard.’