O Come All Ye Forceful: @burgewords on protest Christmas carols

Protesters or performers? The recording session of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in 1984.

Protesters or performers? The recording session of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984.

During the silly season, when you catch a strain of yuletide song at your local shopping centre, know that what you’re listening to (or doing your best to avoid) probably started its life as a protest song.

Well, perhaps not technically a protest song, but a Protestant song, which once meant the same thing.

When Martin Luther reformed the church establishment in the 16th century, he brought song into the churches and placed it in the mouths of the faithful.

A songwriter in addition to being a reformer, Luther was keen for men and women to sing in their own language, instead of listening to male choirs performing in languages most congregations barely understood.

Crowds of people have been singing back at the pulpit ever since. Heck, I’m going to credit Martin Luther with the creation of popular music!

Here’s my Christmas present to you: check out the video clip to our generation’s protest Christmas carol.

The celebration of Carols by Candlelight in the Australian summer, and the tradition of wassailers walking from house to house singing carols in the northern hemisphere winter holiday, grew from this egalitarian sharing of messages of hope and forgiveness.

“Good King Wenceslas”, a staple of carolers across the Western world, tells the tale of a privileged man who reached out to a needy one. Sung on the doorstep of the wealthy, it’s a call to share. Sung on the street to the homeless, it calls for us to have no shame in asking for alms.

A carol is free speech, shared by a community, often embedded with messages of hope and reminders of humility, and not necessarily owned by anyone. Admit it or not, you probably could reel-off a few if you were forced to, just like at school, and they’ve been popping up in popular culture for some time.

Ironic because its message of giving emerged in the midst of the decade since labelled the ‘greedy’ Eighties, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, recorded by the Band Aid charity ‘supergroup’, utilised star power to raise millions of dollars to aid people suffering in the Ethiopian famine.

The song has had resonance for three decades, but neither the 1989 or 2004 reboots, or the recent cover by the cast of American teen musical television series Glee, saw the same amount of money or interest raised by the 1984 version, which remains one of the most enduring examples of a disparate group of pop stars overcoming egos and geographic barriers to simply lend a hand.

Like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, written as an anti-Vietnam War anthem, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has begun a cultural transformation into a Christmas carol.

The song and the movement behind it has faced harsh critics since its release.

Lambasted for perceived creative shortcomings, and the subject of ongoing speculation about large portions of the funds being creamed-off by Ethiopian warlords, co-writer Bob Geldof has often been moved to blast the media about its coverage of criticism of the Band Aid movement.

As a 14-year-old I witnessed the release of the video and the single of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The song was on everybody’s lips for a summer, and the subsequent international Live Aid in July 1985, also organised by Geldof and Ure, was the concert ticket of the decade.

Watching the video now, the pathos of the moment, and what’s happened in the world since, makes me well-up.

There’s Boy George, voice like a clear bell, before it all went wrong; and Paula Yates and her kids, waving in the throng. There’s George Michael, a paragon of talent, long before he was outed; and a soaring Bono, practising being a global awareness-raiser.

There are the stars, and the bands (and their hairdos) who didn’t know they were already on the wane, and those who have survived to become icons: the superstars of my youth in all their self-conscious glory turned-up when they were needed.

I’m proud of my generation for this song, which essentially belongs to the people of Ethiopia.

But, almost thirty years on, the original version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is hard to come by. Only the array of cover versions is available on iTunes.

The lyric in the finale of the song – “Feed the world” – has lost its original context. The Glee cast video makes no reference to starving children in Ethiopia, it’s a call to feed the needy, everywhere.

So, if you’re my age and older, here’s my Christmas present to you: check out the video clip to our generation’s protest Christmas carol and tell me, has anything recorded since had the same impact?

Don’t forget to sing along, you know the words!

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  1. great read Michael, o come all yeah!