The most poignant and powerful Christmas-themed song of the modern era was released 50 years ago by Laura Nyro, the Bronx-born singer and songwriter whose remarkable contribution to the American songbook included a series of late-1960s and early-1970s hit singles for the 5th Dimension (“Wedding Bell Blues”), the Supremes (“Stoned Soul Picnic”), Blood, Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”) Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Comin’’”) and Barbra Streisand (“Stoney End”).”
A brilliant lyricist who infused her songs with cultural and political meaning, Nyro knew no musical boundaries. Working at the intersection of blues, soul, folk, rock and jazz, she composed music so intense that, as Suzanne Vega would note, “ordinary things—the weather, the river, the streets, the kids—glowed with a spiritual energy. Though we were plain, ordinary, nasty kids, when she sang she made us beautiful.”
Nyro released four groundbreaking albums of her own songs between 1967 and 1970, the last of which was Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Issued in November 1970, it was not a collection of holiday favorites but, rather, a haunting moral statement about a moment when generational, gender, and racial divisions were tearing the country apart.
The most political song of the album was its last, “Christmas in My Soul,” a seven-minute symphony that opened with the promise, “I know it ain’t easy, but we’re gonna look for a better day.”
The imagery Nyro employed was not easy. It made demands on listeners, and on the singer herself.
I love my country as it dies
In war and pain before my eyes
I walk the streets where disrespect has been
The sins of politics, the politics of sin
The heartlessness that darkens my soul
Red and silver on the leaves
Fallen white snow runs softly through the trees
Madonnas weep for wars of hell
They blow out the candles and haunt Noel
The missing love that rings through the work
Nyro was writing at the close of a year that had seen the Vietnam War spread into Cambodia, and when the war at home had brought the killing of student protesters on the campuses of Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State University in Mississippi. Backlash politics, inspired by Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and George Wallace, among others, was sweeping the nation, as racist code words inflamed the off-year election season that concluded just days before the Christmas and the Beads of Sweat was released.
Authorities were arresting and prosecuting members of the Black Panther Party, organizers of demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Native Americans who that demanded treaty rights be respected.
Nyro pulled all the pieces into her narrative, singing:
Black Panther brothers bound in jail
Chicago Seven and the justice scale
Homeless Indian on Manhattan Isle
All God’s sons have gone to trial
And all God’s love is out of style
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Nyro, who died in 1997 at age 49, was an inspiring if not always best-selling artist who would eventually be hailed as a vital influence by Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Jill Sobule, Roseanne Cash, Donna Summer, Billy Childs, and Bette Midler. In a reflection highlighted by Michele Kort’s masterful 2003 biography, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Lauro Nyro (St. Martin’s), Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary credited Nyro with “setting the tone of a strong woman in a time when the image didn’t readily exist.” The finest musicians of the time played on Christmas and the Beads of Sweat: Duane Allman and Cornell Dupree on guitar, Felix Cavaliere on organ, Alice Coltrane on harp, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Richard Davis, the most innovative bass player of the era, contributed parts every bit as elegant as his playing on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
When it was released, however, the reception for Nyro’s album was mixed—especially for the song “Christmas in My Soul.”
Critics griped that singer had grown “too serious,” with Rolling Stone’s Alec Dubro complaining that the album “can be appreciated for its virtuosity, but it’s hard to just sit back and dig on it.” They respected Nyro’s craft and musicianship, but fretted that the songs themselves were too topical, too timely, and too stark in its assessment of an American experiment gone awry.
Yet today, five decades after its release, “Christmas in My Soul” is as meaningful, and moving, as it was for those who got its point in 1970. The song’s specificity does not date it, as some critics feared at the time, because the fundamental questions it asked remain unanswered. America is still wrestling with racism, sexism, and generational estrangement. In 2020, this country’s deep divisions and even deeper inequalities have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic and the economic dislocation that extends from it. The sins of politics, the politics of sin, the heartlessness still darken our soul on Christmas.
Through it all, we still look for hope and healing, as Laura Nyro did at the close of “Christmas in My Soul,” when her voice soared to announce:
Now the time has come to fight
Laws in the book of love burn bright
People, you must win for thee, America,
Her dignity for all the high court
World to see