The 12 Roots Songs of Christmas- #9

I’m posting a few hours early because tomorrow is already full. This is Sunday’s Roots Song of the Day.

For today’s Roots Song of Christmas, I want to feature a song that speaks directly not so much to Christmas but toward the feelings of isolation and longing for community that so many experience as everything and everyone (else) focuses on the closing of one year and the beginning of another.

Merle-Haggard-Christmas-Present-300x297Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” cuts like few other songs do at this time of year. Innumerable artists have covered the song, making it a seasonal staple. I would imagine it is a difficult song to sing, given the quality of the original, but I also figure it should be pretty hard to mess up because of the depth of the writing. My favourite cover of the song is found on Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum’s Winter Grace album of a few years ago; Rozum nails it.

Haggard’s is not only is it a masterful vocal performance; the instrumentation is understated but perfect for the mood. No pretentious sleigh bells or sugary effects to mask the pain of the protagonist here; this is reality. With some south-of-the-border guitar flavours, reminiscent of Marty Robbins’s recordings, a bit of background vocals to soften the blow, and a touch of piano, Haggard carves a lyrical masterpiece:

“Got laid off down at the factory,
And their timing’s not the greatest in the world;
Heaven knows I been working hard
Wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl.
I don’t mean to hate December,
It’s meant to be the happy time of year;
And my little girl don’t understand
Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas here.”

There is an entire movie of the week in those eight lines, but it is saved from sentimentality by the honesty of Haggard’s voice, an honesty that is apparent and true in the words and tone when heard today as it was the early seventies. Capping the verse is a chorus striking in its simplicity:

“If we make it through December,
Everything’s gonna be alright, I know.
It’s the coldest time of winter,
And I shiver when I see the falling snow.”

Recorded in January 1973, the song topped the country charts and even broke into the Billboard Top 30. It is a song that transcends the Christmas season, making it the rare ‘Christmas’ song that can be heard and appreciated year-round. Its essential theme- just get me through the next little tough bit and everything will be better- has likely been a mantra for working class people forever. Listen to Merle here, a ‘live’ 1985 clip.

Now, I need to admit- things get jumbled in my brain and “If We Make it Through December” wasn’t the song I was planning on writing about when I started an hour or so ago. I thought it was, but it wasn’t. It was in my mind, I know and I had listened to Laurie and Tom’s version last night just to make sure their performance was everything I remembered it to be: it is.

No, the song I really wanted to focus on is the similarly titled “Get Me Through December,” written by Gordie Sampson and Fred Lavery and recorded by Natalie MacMaster and Alison Krauss on the splendid little In My Hands of 1999. However, when I was thinking of the MacMaster/Krauss song, for some reason I thought it was a version of the Haggard song. And I knew it wasn’t- and had confused this previously in another moment of befuddlement- but still, today…it happened again. That is, until I actually took the disc off the shelf.

Unlike the Haggard song, which is centered around the disappointments and challenges of the Christmas season, “Get Me Through December” is so harsh that Christmas doesn’t even come into things to lighten the load. It is a very heavy song. As I wrote in the introduction to this piece, I wanted to feature a song today that speaks directly not to Christmas but toward the desperate feelings so many experience as everything is focused on the closing of one year and the promises of the next.

This is one of my favourite vocal performances from Alison Krauss. We all know she can sing anything and make it soundnat beautiful. But I think she really outdoes herself on this track. When she sings, “I’ve taken the pain no girl should endure” my heart aches for her misfortune. The pleading message, conveyed without self-pity but loaded with need, a cry for help, of “Get me through December, just so I can start again” is compounded by the intensity of the rest of the song, the hint that she isn’t going to make it through the month. It makes me sad because I know there is nothing I can do to stop her pain, or the pain of others suffering from depression.

Years later, the track appeared on the Krauss compilation A Hundred Miles or More, slightly remixed, but I can’t tell the difference beyond it seems louder than on In My Hands. Hear it here.

My non-roots Christmas song of the day is what I consider the third best rock Christmas song, The Pretenders’ (II) “2000 Miles;” it is only #3 because I already jumped the gun and named “Father Christmas” #2- truthfully, if forced to choose, I go with Chrissie and the boys. I went with this Top of the Pops clip because the original video is blocked on YouTube in Canada, or at least that is what it says on my screen.

Thanks for keeping up with Fervor Coulee. I hope you are finding something of interest. Donald

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