Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Christmas’s Greatest Anti-Carol


An armchair psychologist might say it could only be a December baby born in the Great Depression who could have devised a song so devastatingly critical of the contradictions between consumerist Christmas and Christian charity as Bob Dorough’s Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern). The song was released on the Columbia label’s potpourri LP, Jingle Bell Jazz for the Christmas season fifty years ago. Featuring the likes of Duke Ellington doing Jingle Bells and Dave Brubeck stomping through Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the record’s last track on the B side is Dorough’s Blue Xmas as recorded by the composer himself and an ensemble led by Miles Davis.

Born December 12th, 1933, Dorough’s childhood birthday parties may or may not have been overshadowed by the chaos of holiday shopping, but either way, the brilliant bitterness and incandescent inventiveness of his song repays many times over any real or perceived injury done by Santa and his elves. So timeless is the song’s shape and sentiment that it is hard to believe there have been only fifty Blue Xmases. Each year at this time, Dorough’s mirthful miniature is born again in all its glowering blue glory.

In 1962 Columbia got a jump on the holiday season, issuing Jingle Bell Jazz on October 17th—right in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many feared that the world might not make it to another Christmas. If the Apocalypse had come that Fall, Dorough’s text and its recalcitrant melody of off-kilter intervals and distorted scales would have been a fine way to cap a millennium of Christmas jeer: wherever there have been good tidings of great joy, there have also been bad tidings issued by ill-wishers and naysayers, grinches and grouches.

Dorough’s lyric starts off with an attempt at empty courtesy, but then quickly leaves that scripted sentiment behind for a tour of the dark side of the season; once you hear his wonderfully scrimping, mean-spirited melody you’ll be unable to read the words without hearing in your head the composer’s distinctive voice singing them:

Merry Christmas
I hope you have a white one, but for me it’s blue

Blue Christmas, that’s the way you see it when you’re feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you’re blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste

Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin
They’re wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins
And nearly everybody’s standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup
Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme
Fill my stocking up.
All the way up.
It’s a time when the greedy

give a dime to the needy
Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral
Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all
What I call
Bitter gall…….Fal-de-ral

Lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards
While you’re very, very busy addressing
Twenty zillion Christmas cards
Now, Yuletide is the season to receive and oh, to give and ahh, to share
But all you December do-gooders rush around and rant and rave and loudly blare
Merry Christmas
I hope yours is a bright one, but for me it’s blue.

The genesis of Blue Xmas is related in the eponymous book—a slender paperback—written by Dorough and published by Circumstantial Productions in 2005. In the Summer of 1962, Dorough was working in the Pennsylvania hills some two hours outside of New York City when he got a call from Miles Davis, who asked him to write a Christmas song that Dorough would then sing (with Davis playing trumpet) for the Columbia Christmas record. Whether it was out of contractual obligations or just for the money, Davis seems only reluctantly to have agreed to participate in the Columbia project. Rather than reroasting a Christmas chestnut as the jazz musicians on the disc planned, Davis turned to Dorough for original material.

Like so many young musicians, Dorough had long been dazzled Davis’s mystique and music. After saying hello to Davis on a NYC street in the early 1950s and being completely snubbed by him, the two hung out in Los Angeles in 1959 when Dorough was living there and Davis and his sextet arrived in town for an extended engagement. When Dorough came to the club one night, Miles was at the bar while the band played. Davis then led Dorough up to the bandstand and had John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Wynton Kelly stand aside so that Dorough could sing Hoagy Carmichael’s Baltimore Oriole accompanied only by Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. This vignette in Dorough’s book has the ring of one of those many examples of Davis’s unique talent for humiliation. Dorough admits that he had no idea how his impromptu performance went over in the club, and as always, Miles said nothing by way of thanks or approbation. Nonetheless, the two began to spend some time together after Dorough’s return to New York some months later.

Then in 1962 came that summer evening’s call for a Christmas song from the singing, piano playing composer. Utterly surprised, Dorough first stammered that he’d think about it, but such was his awe for the great man that he immediately set to work. Davis’s persona exuded contempt for eggnog and carols, never mind yuletide glee. So Dorough decided that his song should have a “very Dicenknsian ‘Bah! Humbug!’ sentiment” riffing on the idea of “commercialization of the fine holiday.”

When Dorough brought his finished song to Davis’s place in Manhattan later that summer Gil Evans was waiting in trumpeter’s basement music room. Dorough played and sang Blue Xmas for Evans and Davis several times, the latter eventually proposing a slight reshuffling of the sections. Evans then spent all night throwing together his angular, nagging arrangement for the recording session, which was to take place the next day, August 21st.

That session began with yet more humiliation. When Dorough arrived he saw no one at the piano: “I kept looking to see which piano man was coming to the date,” writes Dorough in Blue Xmas, “and had a glow inside that maybe I was going to play piano.” He was soon disabused of that idea when forced to stand by while Miles telephoned Wynton Kelly then Bill Evans. Neither was available. (The scene recalls a similar one orchestrated—probably malevolently—by Davis for one of the two 1959 sessions for Kind of Blue in which both Kelly and Evans had been summoned when only one was needed (

When Davis said there would be no piano player at all, Dorough protested he that sang from the keyboard—still does!—and needed the guidance of his hands on the keys to keep his voice in tune through the highly chromatic, purposefully awkward grumblings of the melody. He’d neither rehearsed with the ensemble nor heard Evans’ just-completed arrangement. Davis granted Dorough only a single opening chord and not another note on the piano. Attempting to buttress his sagging self-esteem, Dorough reminded himself that Thelonius Monk had been forced by Davis to lay out—or stroll, as the argot of the days put it—on the latter’s Bags’ Groove session back 1954.

After this potentially dispiriting start to the 1962 proceedings, Dorough marshaled his remaining confidence and plunged in. Things went smoothly.  It happened also to be the first Davis date for tenor player Wayne Shorter, who confidently strode through several choruses of swinging but still-standoffish minor blues that framed the disjointed declamations of Dorough’s bebop baroque. As for Davis, his muted horn is heard only in an almost taunting dialogue with Dorough’s vocals. That cool sarcasm brands the piece a Davis production, but also adds a moodier, more malevolent tone to the disaffected, but spry humor of Dorough’s song.

Davis thanked Dorough by giving him union scale wages, falsely grabbing a share of the composition credit, and—a quarter century later in his autobiography Miles—by claiming that the record company had forced him to work with the “silly singer.”

In spite of these affronts, Dorough remains in his book touchingly thankful for having had the chance to record with Davis. We can hardly blame him for his loyalty and undying reverence. Or perhaps Dorough is clever enough to let the historical record—and the vinyl one—speak for itself without resorting to the trademark put-downs of Davis’s life and memoir, one of the most mendacious in the history of the genre.

Dorough relates that the last time the two saw each other, Davis cadged twenty bucks and disappeared: the trumpeter was more likely to take a dime from the needy than give one.

The superficial listener might judge Blue Xmas to be negative in intent and affect, a goofy if momentarily engaging, oddity. This is a mistake. The song’s evanescent dyspepsia is far from the arid irony of so crucial to contemporary attitudes and ersatz counterculture. Dorough’s music is far cooler than what now counts as cool in the so-called hipster precincts of Brooklyn and beyond. His is the rarest and best kind of social criticism that both expresses unwanted truth, while refreshing, entertaining, and uplifting. One laughs at its cruel-kind wit and savors its bittersweet aftertaste. Dorough’s Blue Xmas raises the spirits far more than the smarmy warmth of a pick-any-popstar’s white one.

Soon after the 1962 session Dorough, his wife and young daughter took left New York City. Among other accomplishments, he went on to compose and sing many of the songs for the Saturday morning educational cartoon of the 1970s School House Rock.  On the cusp of his tenth decade, this December child continues to entertain kids and adults with his ageless and irrepressible gifts for making us see and hear the world both as it and as it should be. Just a couple of weeks ago—and just shy of his eighty-ninth birthday—he played at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, a scant two-and-a-half hours from where I now live. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the show, but given what Dorough has done and who he is, I hope the place was packed.  But even if it wasn’t, you can bet his insistent, percussive piano playing and exuberant, edgy voice were as vibrant as they were fifty years ago when, in the Pocono Mountains just north of the Water Gap he penned Christmas’s greatest anti-carol—a piece that is, for those who really listen to it, both a cutting plaint and a melancholic love song to the season.

For CD of Dorough’s classic track as recorded in 1962, one can go to the later incarnation of that original Jingle Bell Jazz.

For a later, expanded version he did for the Blue Note label just two years ago go to:

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases