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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 05:10 am

Christmas songs

Music speaks of freedom and unbridled transcendental love

Untitled Document I play guitar — or, at least, I like to think I do — but I never have learned any Christmas carols, though I’ve attempted to fingerpick “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with little success.
In a more secular vein, I’ve also tried to memorize the lyrics to a song by Woody Guthrie called “1913 Massacre.” The tragic ballad chronicles a true story that took place on Christmas Eve of that year in Calumet, Mich. Striking copper miners and their families had gathered that evening for a Christmas pageant. In Guthrie’s version, somebody hollers “Fire!” and then company thugs block the exit. Scores of people, many of them children, were trampled to death that night. More than likely, the horrid subject matter is what has prevented me from ever committing the song to memory. That leaves only one tune in my repertoire that’s related to the season: “Christmas in Prison,” by John Prine:
It was Christmas in prison and the  
     food was real good, We had turkey and pistols carved      out of wood. And I dream of her always, even      when I don’t dream, Her name’s on my tongue and her     blood’s in my stream.

The ode contains all of the country songwriter’s signature hook lines and combines his noted senses of whimsy and pathos. Every prisoner dreams of escape, of course. In this case, however, the inmate imagines a freedom not bound by prison walls:

Wait a while, an eternity, Old Mother Nature’s got      nothing on me. Come to me, run to me,      come to me now, We’re rolling my sweetheart,     we’re flowing by God.

For me, the song captures the spirit of the season, for it speaks of an unbridled transcendental love. I never spent December 25 in prison, but I have a bittersweet recollection of my mother’s last Christmas, in 2000. She made a miraculous recovery in the intensive-care unit, only to die a few months later. The other Christmas that stands out for me was 50 years ago. In this instance, I was the one recovering from a serious illness. Santa brought me my first bicycle, a secondhand J.C. Higgins model with training wheels. I also received a Zorro outfit. The pulp-fiction hero had been resurrected by Disney earlier that year in the form of a popular TV series. The masked bandit’s legendary battles with Spanish colonial forces in 19th-century California left a lasting impression on my worldview. Zorro defied authority and always managed to vault over whatever barriers were placed in his way. For those of us not possessed of such derring-do, there are songs.
It’s Christmas in prison, There’ll be music tonight. I’ll probably get homesick, I love you, goodnight.

C.D. Stelzer is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times.


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