Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, who knows a thing or two about the subject, just wrote a great Guardian article about how to write a Christmas song. Rule 5 is “No finger-wagging”, the most egregious offender in Stanley’s eyes being Phil Ochs’ No Christmas in Kentucky, about mining country, where “the jingle bells don’t jingle when you’re poor.” But he also writes, “Rules are there to be broken.” In 1965, Melody Maker asked Paul McCartney if the Beatles would make a Christmas record. “Definitely not our style,” laughed Macca, “though come to think of it, I might suggest a Christmas protest song to John!” Six years later, Lennon released Happy Xmas (War Is Over).
So how do you write a good festive protest song? Well, there’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which isn’t a world away from No Christmas in Kentucky in terms of emotional blackmail and grim melodrama, only with the leavening presence of ramshackle pop-star bonhomie and actual bells, but that’s a fundraising tool before it’s a pop song. (Tom Ewing discusses the song with customary insight here.)
It’s also a chronological anomaly. The only really good seasonal protest songs I know are from the late 60s, before songwriters became too self-conscious about sounding schlocky or obvious. I’ve just finished reading Jody Rosen’s exemplary history of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (the title of this blog post is a quote from Berlin), which explains how the Christmas-song industry didn’t take off until after World War Two, and played to nostalgia for an imagined American innocence, as pure and unblemished as fresh snow. After White Christmas (1942), all the big festive standards (The Christmas Song, Sleigh Ride, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!) came in quick succession, as did movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. It was the invention of the modern American Christmas.
In the upheavals of the 60s, these Christmas songs could easily be seen to represent smalltown, whitebread, conservative values — in 1969, the hardline Weatherman Songbook changed the lyrics to White Christmas to “I’m dreaming of a white riot”. But more often you see a desire to politicise or subvert the Christmas song tempered by a powerful affection for it.
Hence Rotary Connection’s Christmas Love (1968), which woos the listener with the usual seasonal cliches before slipping in topical references to Vietnam and the violence in Chicago without killing the mood, perhaps because Minnie Riperton’s voice was incapable of nagging or needling.
James Brown’s Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto (1968) came out just a few months after Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud and is a deft bit of manouevring, all at once daft, moving, sentimental, sincere, approachable, tough, humble and self-aggrandising. “Tell ’em James Brown sent you,” he instructs Saint Nick. Who but Brown would write a song in which he bosses Santa around?
Finally, Simon & Garfunkel’s 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night (1966), which combines the carol with a simulated August 3 news bulletin bringing news of Vietnam, Nixon, civil rights, a serial killer and the death of Lenny Bruce. It has an eerie power which transcends the easy irony of the conceit.
For those who can access Spotify, here’s a Christmas playlist which includes some of the songs mentioned.