I tend to think a bit subversively around the holiday season. Perhaps it’s a reflexive response to wanton consumerism passing like a dark cloud through a time meant for joy and reflection. Another reason may be the many poets and minstrels who use this occasion to remind the world in music about why we should pause.
I enjoy the sweetness of Nat King Cole singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire; “now bring us some figgy pudding” sounds like a fine notion, too. But I’ve never eaten a chestnut, roasted or otherwise, and I prefer tapioca.
These songs, however – made by some of my favorite rabble-rousers – speak to me more viscerally.
Here then, a short list of counterculture Christmas carols:
Happy Christmas (War Is Over), Plastic Ono Band – If not the first, certainly the most well-known holiday protest song. Unlike the times it came from, it’s more hopeful than hectoring tune, which may explain its current-day popularity.
Jerusalem, Steve Earle – Earle imagines a day when “the children of Abraham will put down their swords forever in Jerusalem.” I believe that refusing to listen to a voice claiming all hope is lost is the first step toward changing the world.
The Rebel Jesus, Jackson Browne – Doe the world celebrate Jesus while forgetting his teachings? In recounting the ancient world consequences of advocating for the poor and downtrodden, Browne – “a heathen and a pagan” – makes a convincing case.
Christmas in Hollis, Run-D.M.C. – The message is somewhat buried, but this song appeared in my favorite holiday movie, “Die Hard.” You see how my twisted mind works. “Each year we bust Christmas carols,” indeed. Yippee-ki-yay!
Father Christmas, Kinks – Released as a single in 1977, here’s a tune that fully reflected the zeitgeist of its moment in time. “Give us some money … give all the toys to the little rich boys,” sneers Ray Davies to Royal Jubilee England.
Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas, Staples Singers – The gospel family group really meant “Mary” – not “Merry” – in this 1968 reminder of the holiday’s Biblical imperatives. It’s also soulful as all get-out, a nice bonus.
What Ever Happened to Peace on Earth, Willie Nelson – If Willie had any friends left in country radio, he lost them with the release of this star-studded (Michael McDonald, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson) protest song last December. God bless him.
Love your neighbor, enjoy your holiday and don’t forget to support local music.
Thursday: Holiday Concert, Stevens High School – I point this out because I live in Claremont, which has a wonderful music program from the early grades through high school. The annual December concert is always a highlight. You should make a point to check out the one in your community, wherever you live. If kids stop making music when they’re young, it could be very quiet when we’re old.
Friday: Social Club Orchestra, Middle Earth Music Hall – This Upper Valley based collective, 17 musicians strong, formed last year to raise awareness and make music. Their annual “Holiday Harvest Revue” is also at Gilberte Interiors in downtown Hanover on Wednesday. With fiddles, banjos, guitars and happy voices, it’s described as a night of “rockin’ Christmas cheer.” Pxroceeds go to local charities.
Saturday: Wherehouse, Salt Hill Two – Jason Cann has a big following as a solo performer; he also rocks it up with his three-piece band. They have a well-deserved reputation for filling the room and the dance floor with the musical equivalent of comfort food – a lively mix of Van Morrison, David Gray and the occasional Spencer Davis oldie. Cann’s originals, and the list keeps growing, make a welcome appearance as well.
Sunday: Jody Ebling, Center At Eastman – The second installment of this year’s “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” series features, naturally, Christmas music – with a lovely twist. Ebling edges new and surprising elements out of songs you think you know by heart. Backed by Bill Wightman’s talented JOSA Ensemble, her holiday concert has become an annual attraction. Add to that the fine cuisine provided by Bistro Nouveau, and it’s a fine concoction indeed.
Monday: Celtic Women Christmas Celebration, PBS (TV) – Just one of many musical treats on the television if you’re not inclined to watch the video fireplace. They play things straight down the middle with standards like “Carol of the Bells,” “O Holy Night” and “Let It Snow.” Though my list of protest songs above may seem to indicate otherwise, I love this stuff.
Wednesday: Duke Robillard, Iron Horse – A founding member of Roomful of Blues (who play their own IH set on Friday), Robillard made the move to “all blues” in the mid-90’s after dabbling in R&B as a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He’s occasionally taken time out from his solo career to work with stars – tours with Robert Gordon, Tom Waits and studio gigs with Bob Dylan.