Morgan Daniels gives us his choice of music for Xmas 2023
Voices from Bethlehem — Little Drummer Boy (2018)
In December 2018, five singers living in the occupied West Bank performed a startling multilingual acapella version of the Christmas staple Little Drummer Boy. Nathalie Murad sings in English; Milad Fatouleh in Italian; and Fouad Moubassaleh, Amjad Khair, and Fadi Ghattas all in Arabic. This act of defiance five or six miles from Jerusalem is made all the more powerful by some lyrical additions in Arabic, with Amjad, for instance, intoning: ‘The children of Christmas have two faces / One face smiles; the other is sad / Sadness comes out from their viscera / It screams: we have famine.’
John Milton — On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1629)
This ode was composed by Milton in December 1629 and was published as the very first poem in his 1645 collection. Taken at face value, ‘On the Morning …’ is a straightforward nativity hymn (‘This is the Month, and this the happy morn /
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King / Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born / Our great redemption from above did bring’).
But as Leonard Bopp argued in an interesting short essay, Milton’s ode is ‘interested in more than just ordinary praise of the baby Jesus; the poem imagines nothing less than the total transformation of the world.’ Milton, revolutionary to the core, weds the birth of Christ to the birth of a whole new society, a process which will be bloody, apocalyptic. He forsees and welcomes a ‘holy song’ to make vanity sicken and die; ‘leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould / And Hell itself will pass away’.
Caetano Veloso — In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day (1971)
Caetano Veloso came to prominence in ’60s Brazil as a singer, songwriter, and vocal critic of the country’s military dictatorship, which had been installed with support from the United States in 1964. Five years later, in 1969, Veloso and fellow musician-activist Gilberto Gil were interrogated by the Brazilian regime on account of their political activities and imprisoned for three months. Afterwards both men lived in London until 1972, and it was in this period of exile that Veloso wrote ‘In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day’, a tale of life on the run from state violence, sung in falsetto as a string arrangement of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ drifts in and out.
Run the Jewels — A Christmas Fucking Miracle (2013)
This charming little ditty appeared on the eponymous debut album by the left-wing hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. It runs the gamut of American social problems—racism, alienation, corruption—whilst also offering up a remarkable message of resilience. ‘The powers that be even offered up reprieves’, raps Killer Mike, ‘But they can give that to the kings and the queens / And the worshipers of idols and followers of things / ‘Cause I would rather be in the jungle with the savages’. The official video for ‘A Christmas Fucking Miracle, above, is a hoot, with references to A Christmas Carol and a twisted nativity scene.
Dives and Lazarus (trad.; c.1550)
Based on a memorable parable found in the Gospel of Luke, this traditional English ballad tells of a rich man (Dives) who denies a beggar (Lazarus) food and drink. Dives orders his dogs to bite Lazarus and for his servants to whip him; the latter refuse, and the dogs lick the poor man’s sores. When Lazarus dies, he ascends to heaven, whilst Dives is wrenched into hell.
‘Dives and Lazarus’ was notably collected by the folklorist Lucy Broadwood in 1893, but it may have existed in some form since the mid-sixteenth century. The ballad is but one example of the enduring power of the original story and its radical critique of the way in which wealth divides and corrupts. For instance, the Lazarus parable was beloved of Martin Luther King, and was the subject of his final sermon.
Miles Davis and Bob Dorough — Blue Xmas (To Whom it May Concern) (1962)
This delightfully cynical song was written specially for the 1962 Columbia compilation Jingle Bell Jazz. Bitter and hilarious, ‘Blue Xmas’ overflows with festive contradictions: ‘Lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards’, Dorough sings, ‘While you’re very, very busy addressing / Twenty zillion Christmas cards’.
One line in particular packs a political punch: ‘It’s a time when the greedy / give a dime to the needy’. An obvious rhyme, for sure, but it cuts straight to the heart of the philanthropic spirit. When the rich do so generously donate to the poor (unlike Lazarus), they are giving away money which they stole from workers in the first place.
Victor Jara — El Cigarrito (1966)
‘El Cigarrito’ is certainly not a Christmas song. It’s not even a political song, despite being written by a communist—the visionary Chilean singer, theatre director, and activist, Victor Jara. But in 1973, this sweet little ode to smoking became supercharged with both festive and radical energy. This was the year in which the military dictatorship in Chile was installed with support from the United States, and the year that thousands of enemies of the regime were rounded up in Estadio Chile in Santiago. Jara was amongst those detained, and was murdered by Pinochet’s soldiers just five days after the coup.
Several months later, political prisoners at another stadium, in Concepción, were granted a limited Christmas celebration. Alfonso Padilla Silva recalls:
During Christmas 1973, I was one of some 600 men and 100 women prisoners in Concepción Regional Stadium.
The concentration camp officials allowed us to celebrate Christmas in the sports arena. To be precise, we were in one corner of the playing field and we used the pole vault pit as a stage.
Accompanying ourselves on that guitar, many political prisoners, men and women, sang either as soloists, in duos or in groups. I played Victor Jara’s song ‘El cigarrito’.
Although strictly speaking, the song did not have a social or political message as such, to sing a song by Jara was tantamount to a tribute to him and to his example, and also to all the fallen comrades.
Coventry Carol (trad.; 16th century)
The ‘Coventry Carol’ has its origins in a sixteenth-century mystery play, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, one of a cycle of ten performances on New Testament themes. Its subject matter is the Massacre of the Innocents from the Gospel of Matthew, wherein Herod the Great, King of Judea, orders the murder of all male children aged two and under in Bethlehem. The ‘Carol’ is by sung by an agonised mother to her soon-to-be-slaughtered son; it is an exemplary anti-war composition.
We have chosen Joan Baez’s haunting 1966 rendition of the ‘Coventry Carol’ for this year’s festive list. Baez, of course, is a venerable anti-war activist, most heavily involved in the campaign against the Vietnam War.
Ebba Grön — Nu Släckas Tusen Människoliv (1980)
Active from 1977 to 1983, the great Swedish punk band Ebba Grön combined anti-capitalist politics with a fine ear for a tune, as exemplified by this jaunty number playing upon the traditional Swedish Christmas carol, ‘Nu Tändas Tusen Juleljus’ (‘Now Are Lit a Thousand Christmas Candles’). In Ebba Grön’s hands this carol became ‘Nu Släckas TusenMänniskoliv’—‘Now a Thousand Human Lives Are Put Out’. It is a disturbingly catchy song about homelessness, surveying the ills of modern society and their magnification at Christmastime.
The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl — Fairytale of New York (1987)
Shane MacGowan’s recent passing meant we could hardly ignore ‘Fairytale of New York’ this year, and let us point out, first of all, that this song adored by millions is performed by two socialists. (‘I believe in a Republic’, said Shane MacGowan, ‘a socialist Republic’.) Let us add that the Pogues’ songs were all essentially political in their different ways, diasporic tunes of hope and misery and poverty and struggle. ‘Fairytale of New York’ is no different.
Its central conceit blows away one of the great narratives of Western capitalism, viz. the American Dream. ‘Fairytale’ describes the broken dreams of immigrants, washed out, embittered, drunk, more-or-less dead. In other words, it emphasises what the grand meritocratic fantasy of the America is all about. If anyone can make it, if anyone can apparently rise to the top, this necessarily means that others must fall by the wayside. ‘Fairytale of New York’ tells us: failure is built into the promises of the American Dream. Rest in peace, Shane.