Protest Song of the Day: ‘No Christmas in Kentucky’ by Phil Ochs
Weeks ago, to recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in creating a culture of dissent and how musicians translate social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter launched a daily feature to highlight a protest song every weekday. The daily feature went on hiatus. In recent days, the daily feature has resumed with a particular focus on Christmas-themed protest songs.
In the 1960s, folk singer Phil Ochs recorded a song called “No Christmas in Kentucky.” The song, as described in a book on him, There But for Fortune, was a “poignant and topical” song infused with social realism that he experienced firsthand. It addressed the “enormous poverty and hunger that Phil had encountered during his stay in mining country.”
The chorus suggested there was not much for miners to celebrate during Christmas because they were poor:
No, they don’t have Christmas in Kentucky
There’s no holly on a West Virginia door
For the trees don’t twinkle when you’re hungry
And the Jingle Bells don’t jingle when you’re poor
The bleakness of life comes through with lyrics like, “In the dark hills of Kentucky there’s one gift that may be found/The coal dust of forgotten days that’s lying on the ground.”
In a stanza wrought with irony, Ochs sings, “Let’s drink a toast to Congress and a toast to Santa Claus/And a toast to all the speeches that bring the loud applause/There’s not enough to give, no, there’s not enough to share/So let’s drown the sounds of sorrow with a hearty Christmas cheer.”
With so much injustice in mining country, with workers struggling for dignity and rights, Ochs has a tough time being cheerful. And that feeling becomes a profound message to Americans intended to make those who ignore people in poverty during the holiday season uncomfortable.
If you have requests for songs that should be featured or if you have a protest song you recorded, which you would like to see featured, email email@example.com. And all previous Protest Song of the Day selections can be found here.