Avoid the lockdown blues with Morgan Daniels' pick of radical Chrismas songs
1Aunt Molly Jackson – Christmas Eve on the East Side (1936)
Born in 1880 in Clay County, Kentucky, Aunt Molly Jackson was described by Woody Guthrie as the ‘best ballad singer in the whole country’. She was also a committed union activist, spending much of the 1920s campaigning for miners’ rights: Jackson had lost her brother, son, and first husband in the Kentucky coalmines.
In 1931, Jackson was invited to New York to sing her songs of struggle at a 3000-strong public meeting on the ‘Harlan Kentucky Terror’—a brutal attack on striking miners by the Kentucky National Guard in which four workers were killed. Jackson would stay in the city for a decade. Guthrie again: ‘She lives in NewYork City now. Over on the east side. In the slums and tenements. Where filth and starvation and disease is just as bad, only thicker, than anywhere in Kentucky.’
This desperate world is the subject of Jackson’s ‘Christmas Eve on the East Side’, which was recorded a cappella for the folklorists Mary Barnicle and Alan Lomax in 1939:
My heart it is breaking; it's Christmas Eve night.
I'm in the slums of the East Side without any light.
I've no gas or electric to make myself a cup of tea
Oh, tell me, fellow workers, how can this be?
Tell me, fellow workers, how can this be,
A home of the brave and the land of the free?
Starvation and misery is all that is free,
For poor hard-working masses like you and like me.
While the poor hard-working masses live in rat-infested slums,
Those rich and mighty grafters they all have nice homes
‘Christmas Eve on the East Side’ is not just about describing the stark injustices of class society; it is an appeal to get organised, too. Jackson’s song ends with a recruitment drive for the Workers Alliance of America:
So come along, fellow workers, and let us unite,
And take all that belongs to the laborers from those rich parasites;
United we stand and divided we fall,
Come join the Workers Alliance while I'm making this call.
2The Farm – No Man’s Land (1981)
Long since establishment-approved and entered into that particular canon of songs used to soundtrack goal of the season compilations, The Farm’s ‘All Together Now’ is nevertheless radical in origin. Its author, the socialist Peter Hooton, explains that he was driven to write a song
"shortly after Michael Foot had been disgracefully slurred at Remembrance Sunday in Nov 1981 for allegedly showing disrespect for wearing what the right wing press described as a donkey jacket. It was in fact an expensive coat purchased from Harrods, which even the Queen Mother, had complimented him on. I wrote the lyrics in anger at the sheer hypocrisy of the reports that had been ignited by a right wing Labour MP contacting a journalist to complain about Michael Foot’s attire (some things never change.)
My reasoning was that the soldiers from the First World War would’ve had more in common with him than the ‘top brass’ who sent the young soldiers to their death in No Man’s Land. If only the dead could speak I thought!"
The subject of Hooton’s song—the famous ‘truce’ along the Western Front at Christmas 1914—has likewise become Establishment-approved, a story safe enough to feature, for instance, in Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ads. But its implications are revolutionary. A bayonet, as the saying goes, is a weapon with a worker at both ends: the Christmas truce was a moment of class solidarity across borders.
As a way of returning some radicalism to ‘All Together Now’, we have featured its original, barebones incarnation, ‘No Man’s Land’, recorded for John Peel in 1981.
3Carlos Mejia Godoy – Navidad en Libertad (1973)
Carlos Mejía Godoy came to prominence in the 1970s as one of the foremost Nueva canción (‘New Song’) singers. Nueva canción, a left-wing musical movement and genre, was coterminous with revolutions throughout Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. In Nicaragua, Mejía’s music became strongly associated with the Sandinista movement and the revolutionary overthrow of the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
‘Navidad en Libertad’ (‘Christmas in Freedom’) appears on Mejía’s first album, Cantos a flor de pueblo, released in 1973. The chorus, in which Mejía is joined by some schoolchildren, dreams of a ‘Merry Christmas without misery and oppression.’Walter Aaron Clark notes that the simple musical backing—just drums and an organ—‘internationalizes’ the song’s message: it is firmly rooted in Iberian folk, yet Mejía dedicates the lyrics to ‘all of the children of the Third World’.
4Ewan MacColl – Ballad of the Carpenter (1954)
‘Jesus was a working man, a hero you shall hear / Born in the slums of Bethlehem, at the turning of the year.’ So begins ‘Ballad of the Carpenter’, a celebration of Christ as a working-class hero written by Ewan MacColl on the way to a Christmas party in 1954. In an interview given shortly before his death in 1989, MacColl explained that his version of Christ was coherent with the historical record:
"Jesus did kind of make his appeal to the poor, 'Blessed are the poor'– he says – 'for they shall inherit the earth'. […] And it struck me that we needed a song which took Jesus Christ out of the hands of the bosses and put him in the hands of the working class. […] My own feeling about Christ, from what I’ve read, from reading Josephus, is that Christ was one of many agitators, working-class agitators, who did not set himself up as a God-figure. There is no mention that he set himself up as the son of God, no mention at all! The only Roman account we have of the period of Jesus Christ himself, he never set himself up in that work to be the son of God, but merely as one who is trying to organize the Jewish kind of peasantry of his time."
MacColl’s secular image of Christ committed to grassroots organization proved hugely popular. The song was a staple of the folk clubs in the 1950s and 1960s, and even entered into the carol repertoire in the village of Castleton in the Peak District.
5Joan Baez – Where Are You Now, My Son? (1973)
In December 1972, Joan Baez spent nearly two weeks in North Vietnam, during which time she experienced first-hand the effects of Operation Linebacker II—an eleven-day aerial bombing campaign by the US over Hanoi and Haiphong. Killing at least 1,600 Vietnamese civilians, the ‘Christmas Bombings’ comprised a total of sixty raids and represented the heaviest American air strike since the end of the Second World War.
Baez returned from Vietnam with fifteen hours of field recordings documenting this bloody campaign. Fragments of her tapes weave in and out of ‘Where Are You Now, My Son?’, an anti-war ballad that is twenty-two minutes in length and is at once spoken and sung in a haunting, vertiginous collage of sound.
By the time it was released as the title track to Baez’s thirteenth studio album in March 1973, the Vietnam War was over—the Paris Peace Accords marking a humiliating American defeat had been signed two months earlier. But in a world still today being ripped apart by Western imperialism,the song remains as relevant as ever. As Baez put it in her liner notes for the album: ‘the war against violence has hardly begun’.
6Paul Robeson – Los Cuatro Generales/The Four Insurgent Generals (1942)
The generals in question are Francisco Franco, Emilio Mola, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, and José Enrique Varela—the Nationalist leaders of the military coup to overthrow Spain’s Popular Front government in 1936. This song celebrates the successful Republican defence of the capital, Madrid, in November of that year, and calls for the generals’ hanging by—or, in some versions, on—Christmas Eve.
‘Los Cuatro Generales’ is based on an Andalusian muleteer song, ‘Los Cuatro Muleros’, collected by Federico Garcia Lorca, a trailblazing Spanish writer presumed to have been killed by the Nationalists in August 1936. It was recorded by the German actor Ernst Busch in Barcelona in 1938. The version included here is by the baritone communist, actor, lawyer, and athlete, Paul Robeson, who lent considerable support to the Republican cause throughout the Spanish Civil War.
Franco was not hanged on Christmas Eve, of course. The Nationalists won the Civil War in 1939, with Franco installed as dictator until his death in 1975. Yet as Peter Glazer argues, the rich and varied array of songs written during the fight against Franco speak to the strength of the resistance:
The Spanish Civil War was sung to me long before I knew what it was about. I grew up in the 1960s. When my parents would invite friends over for a dinner party, the conversations inevitably turned to the war in Vietnam. After dinner, my father, folk singer Tom Glazer, would get out his guitar and play. Often, someone would ask him to perform songs from another very different war, the Spanish conflict of the 1930s. “Do the one about the four generals” was a common request. “Los cuatro generales, los cuatro generales . . .” my father would sing, and a reverent hush would fall over the room. Eyes would close; people would hum or sing along. This music created an emotional atmosphere I could neither fathom nor ignore. Years later, the songs led me to the history. I found out who the four generals were, the nature of their betrayal of the Spanish people, and why, a few verses later, the song called for their hanging on Christmas Eve.
For so many on the Left, the cause of the Spanish Republic in its fight against fascism between 1936 and 1939 was almost sacred, and these songs were their hymnal. […] Franco had no idea what passions his coup against the democratically elected government of Spain would unleash. He thought he would control Spain in weeks.
7William Blake/Ralph Vaughan Williams – Cradle Song (1789/1928)
It is remarkable to note that the resurgence of the Christmas carol in modern times is largely down to the work of socialists, namely Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Their monumental Oxford Book of Carols (1928), which they edited alongside Martin Shaw, collected traditional and contemporary festive songs, with some works set to new music by Williams.
This book emblematises a particular and peculiar strand of English socialism which was strong from the late nineteenth century through much of the twentieth century, one fusing Christianity, folk revivalism, medievalism, and an appreciation of craft. Dearmer, for instance, was not just a socialist but a Church of England priest and a lecturer in art.
Among the older songs reworked by Vaughan Williams, and thus claimed for the carolling tradition, was ‘Cradle Song’, one of William Blake’s 1789 Songs of Innocence:
Sleep! sleep! beauty bright,
Dreaming o'er the joys of night;
Sleep! sleep! in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.
This playful simplicity is typical of a trend in Blake’s work that Harriet Monroe characterised as decidedly festive. ‘It is strange how the worship of the Christ-child penetrated the hard old Roman-built world’ wrote Monroe in a 1927 article, ‘Christmas and William Blake’. ‘An infant conquered the nations; the human race lifted up its eyes and sang a new song’—in short, Christ informed ‘a rebirth into innocence, child-like naiveté’.
For Monroe, the legacy of this ‘rebirth’ was in evidence everywhere from the medieval Christmas carol to Shakespeare. After the Elizabethan age, however, ‘that special note of dewy freshness … becomes extremely rare in English song’—until, that is, ‘William Blake lifted up a tiny flute-like voice against a noisy world.’ In other words, Blake sought an idiosyncratic revival of innocence, a return to the infant Christ shot through with proto-anarchism and mysticism, at the dawn of industrial capitalism.
8Bob Dylan – The Ballad of Donald White (1962)
In February 1962, Bob Dylan was sat in his apartment at 161st West 4th Street, New York City, watching a documentary called A Volcano Named White. Its subject was Donald White, a black man in his early twenties, sat on Death Row following his conviction for murdering Alice Ann Jumper on Christmas Eve, 1959. Some possibly fanciful accounts have it that before the film was over, Dylan had completed ‘The Ballad of Donald White’. The song is based upon a nineteenth-century Canadian folk tune, ‘Peter Emberley’, and is sung from White’s perspective, the doomed man decrying his lack of opportunities in life:
If I had some education
To give me a decent start
I might have been a doctor or
A master in the arts
But I used my hands for stealing
When I was very young
And they locked me down in jailhouse cells
That’s how my life begun
Not for the first time, and most certainly not for the last, Dylan sang with a gut-level sense of the oppression structured into society. He later explained:
I'd seen Donald White's name in a Seattle paper in about 1959. It said he was a killer. The next time I saw him was on a television set. My gal Sue said I'd be interested in him so we went and watched... Donald White was sent home from prisons and institutions 'cause they had no room. He asked to be sent back 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. He murdered someone 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. Now they killed him 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. They killed him and when they did I lost some of my room in life. When are some people gonna wake up and see that sometimes people aren't really their enemies but their victims?
Dylan only performed ‘Donald White’ a small number of times, and never recorded it for a studio album.
9The Virgin Mary – The Magnificat
The Magnificat is a canticle derived from the longest speech by a woman in the Bible—the pregnant Mary’s song of praise for God in the company of her cousin, Elizabeth. Her words are hardly those of a naïve, humble, subjected young girl, as Mary is so often presented:
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
In his 1914 book, The Call of the Carpenter, that great socialist and Congregational minister, Bouck White, evaluated the Magnificatas nothing less than ‘the battle-hymn of democracy’, affirming that ‘Heaven is not on the side of privilege and oppression … but is rather on the side of the trodden.’ The Magnificat, White wrote, ‘is the greatest song in history.’
10Robert Burns – Auld Lang Syne (1788)
‘Rabbie’ Burns, the National Bard, holds a revered and almost talismanic position for Scottish socialists. In 1910, William Stewart, a prominent Independent Labour Party member based in Glasgow, wrote that with the publication of Burns’ famous republican song ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ (1795),
the claim of Socialism had found a voice. For what is the claim of Socialism but this—that the conditions shall prevail wherein manhood shall have free play, wherein a man shall be a man? This was Burns’ message to humanity. He was the first great poet to deliver that message; and the fact that despite the limitations of his medium of expression he was able to command the world’s attention, stamps him for ever as one of the world’s men of power.
Burns’ egalitarianism, his celebration of common humanity, is inscribed in the song we all sing on New Year’s Eve, ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Adapted from an early eighteenth-century ballad, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is a hymn to friendship that feels all the more vital at the end of this wretched year. Human beings are social animals, yet in capitalist society we are alienated one from the other in a variety of ways that are decidedly unnatural.
This New Year’s Eve, as we take a cup of kindness yet for the sake of auld lang syne, it will be hard not to reflect on nine months of desperate alienation born out of Tory mismanagement, corruption, and the prioritisation of profit. Yet we will remember, too, our response to the Covid crisis—the spontaneous, collective demonstrations of solidarity and a commitment to the common good. The Tories hate that sort of thing.
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