Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Inequality Christmas songs

Readers, I apologize for neglecting this blog of late. The demands the holiday season, not to mention life, have pulled me away from my duties here. Also, those of you who follow my work at the Washington Monthly know that I was writing up a storm there over the weekend. My most significant inequality-related post there was this one, about a new report that shows that unions help women at all education levels achieve higher pay and better benefits than their non-union counterparts.

On this Christmas Eve, I wish all of you happy holidays, merry Christmas, a joyous Kwanzaa, a most excellent Festivus, and/or a fun and delightful whatever-you-are-having. Christmas came early for me this year in the form of reader contributions to this blog, for which I thank you all profusely. I am touched by your generosity. I've used some of the money to buy books about inequality, which I will be reading and discussing here.

Moving on to the theme of this post . . . When I was thinking about Christmas music recently, it occurred to me that inequality was a subject of a number of classic and contemporary Christmas songs. With that in mind, I decided to put together a compilation of some of my favorites. I hope you enjoy them.

1. Martha Wainwright, "Rebel Jesus," lyrics here

I'm generally not a big fan of Jackson Browne, but he's written at least one great song, and this is it. It's a Christmas song that, in the manner of the great Pasolini film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, reclaims Jesus Christ as a radical and champion of the poor.  I don't know if Pope Francis has heard this song, but I have a feeling he'd love it. This recording is from the excellent Christmas album The McGarrigle Christmas Hour.

2. The Kinks, "Father Christmas," lyrics here

A song that combines Christmas and class consciousness by one of the greatest rock bands in history. What's not to like?

3. Woody Guthrie, "1913 Massacre," lyrics here

Okay, this is hands-down the most grisly and horrifically depressing Christmas-themed song ever. It was written by Woody Guthrie about a historical event known as the Italian Hall disaster. In Calumet, Michigan on Christmas Eve in 1913, over 500 striking copper miners and their families gathered together at the Hall for a holiday celebration. At some point during the evening, someone falsely yelled "fire," and in the ensuing panic to exit the building 73 people -- 59 of them children -- were trampled to death.

Exactly why this happened has long been disputed. The version believed by many labor supporters, and the one Woody Guthrie tells here, is that the person who yelled "fire" and caused the stampede was an anti-union thug. Recent scholarship lends support to this interpretation, but we may never know for sure.

4. Mel Tormé, "Good King Wenceslas," lyrics here

A number of traditional Christmas carols mention the poor, and the virtue of caring for the poor. This one is based on the legend of a historical king and saint -- King Wenceslas I, who reigned in Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic) in the tenth century. The music for this carol is from the 13th century. The lyrics, which are Victorian, concern the titular king's journey through harsh winter weather so that he can donate alms to a needy peasant. The moral of the song is spelled out in its closing lyrics, and it couldn't be clearer:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing,
ye who now will bless the poor
shall yourselves find blessing
It's not an especially radical message, to be sure -- merely a blend of traditional Christianity and old-fashioned noblesse oblige. And yet I'm sure the Tea Partiers and Ayn Rand fanboys would shriek about how this is a message that punishes the job creators, encourages the undeserving poor, and turns the safety net into a hammock. But they would, wouldn't they?

There have been countless recordings of this song, but I'm particularly fond of this jazzy one by Mel Tormé, whose singing here smooth-as-silk as ever. It's a bit goofy, and yet somehow it works.

5. The Roches, "Here We Come a Caroling," lyrics here

This song is 19th century in origin. It was one of the Christmas carols that poor people, beggars, and orphans would sing as they went door-to-door to the houses of the well-to-do. In exchange, they would often be offered a bit of food or drink, or a penny, or sometimes just the opportunity to warm themselves by the fire. You hear references to those things in the lyrics: "Bring us out a mouldy cheese/And some of your Christmas loaf" and "Pray think of us poor children/Who wander in the mire."

This version of the song is from what is perhaps my favorite Christmas album ever, The Roches' We Three Kings.

6. Brian Wilson, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," lyrics here

Another of the caroling songs, this one is goes back to the 16th century. However, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" seems a good deal less polite than "Here We Come a Caroling." Am I wrong to detect menace in the "We won't go until we get some" refrain? This is a song that certainly seems to bring out the subversive and carnivalesque potential of this holiday.

7. Steeleye Span, "Gower Wassail," lyrics here

My final next-to-last selection is another caroling song. Apparently, the "Gower Wassail" is a traditional Welsh folk song; the English folk rock band Steeleye Span recorded this version of it in 1971. Rarely do I have any patience whatsoever for rock songs with medieval pretensions -- I associate this genre of rock with Spinal Tap-type ridiculousness. But this song is one case where a rock band's cover of an (apparently) medieval folk song actually works. The guitars and pounding drums lend a propulsive tension and urgency to the song. This heightens the drama and desperation illustrated by lyrics such as "we poor wassail boys so weary and cold" and "And if we survive for another new year."

 8. (Added) James Brown, "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," lyrics here

A reader reminded me of this one, which I'd forgotten about. I shouldn't have. James Brown riffs on the racial politics of Santa Claus.

Have a wonderful holiday, everyone! And while you're sitting at the dinner table scarfing down turkey or Chinese food or whatever your ritual Christmas feast is, ponder this: it's not only these, and other, Christmas songs that deal with inequality. Some of the most enduringly popular Christmas-themed films and novels -- It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol -- also center on this theme. There's a clear sense that Scrooge and Mr. Potter have too much, and the Cratchits and the citizens of Bedford Falls have too little.

Why is that, do you think? Inequality is hardly a new concern. People have long cared deeply about this subject and been troubled by it. They may not have identified it as "inequality," per se. And they may have believed the solution to the problem to be personal or spiritual rather than political. Research shows that human beings have a strong preference for economic fairness. Throughout history, economic inequality been a central human concern -- no matter how energetically some people may try to convince you, and perhaps themselves, that it doesn't matter.


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