Merry Christmas! I hope that the Christmas Song of the Day feature has somehow made your holiday season a little brighter. I try to write about recordings that are deserving of greater attention than the usual radio fare, and today’s feature is one of them.
From the earliest days of recorded country music, the spoken-word recording was a staple of the genre. Among the more famous ones are T. Texas Tyler’s “The Deck of Cards,” which was recorded by numerous artists; Red Sovine’s trucking tales including “Giddyup Go” and “Phantom 309”; and Bill Anderson’s 1963 hit “Still,” which has sung choruses but otherwise is entirely spoken. As recently as 1977, Donna Fargo hit #1 on the country charts with a spoken-word hit called “That Was Yesterday.” But they’ve largely disappeared, gone the way of sawing fiddles and Western Swing. Today I wish to spotlight a spoken-word Christmas recording that I almost never hear on the radio, but perhaps ought to be spun more often. It’s called “The Christmas Guest.”
In the story, an old cobbler named Conrad dreams that he will be granted his greatest wish: On Christmas Day, the Good Lord will come to visit. So he sat and waited for His arrival. Meanwhile, Conrad’s Christmas is interrupted three times by weary travelers, whom he helps, even as he awaits his Lord to come. At the end of the day, Conrad, fearing that the Lord did not come, gets a surprise when he asks where he was.
It’s an old tale that, in something close to its eventual form, was written in prose by a French musician, author and pastor named Ruben Saillens (1855-1942). He wrote a story called Le Père Martin in 1883. Thinking it was in the public domain, legendary author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) adapted the tale to Russian in 1885, keeping the main character of Martin. The Tolstoy version, entitled Where Love Is, God Is, was translated into English by Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) in 1887. When that version was re-translated into French, Saillens discovered that his copyright had been violated. When Tolstoy was informed, he is known to have apologized profusely. Another English translation of the Tolstoy version exists under the name Papa Panov’s Special Christmas to reflect Tolstoy’s Russian roots. Because Tolstoy’s works entered the public domain upon his death, later versions of tbe story are based on Tolstoy.
By no later than 1956, a prose version called The Story of the Christmas Guest was in print in Christmas-card form, and the shoemaker’s name had become Conrad. This version ended with a short poem, which was adapted (though not taken verbatim) in the later full-length poem.
“The Story of the Christmas Guest” then became a full poem in the early 1960s, published in small booklet form by the Gibson Greeting Card Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Helen Steiner Rice (1900-1981) adapted the story, which was said in the first printing of the card booklet to be “From an old German Legend and poem” (caps in original). Rice’s poem was copyrighted in 1965.
Possibly because no notice of copyright appeared in the first printing of the Gibson card, it was assumed to be in the public domain. Thus, in 1969, Grandpa Jones (1913-1998), best known for his recurring presence on the television show Hee Haw, became the first to record the poem, under the shortened title “The Christmas Guest.” That year, the recitation was issued on the Monument label, both as a 45 and on a various-artists LP called Country Christmas. Even though only a few minor changes were made to Rice’s original, the composer of the Jones version was listed as “(Arr. Grandpa Jones)” on the 45 rpm label. Jones’ version was reissued in 1972 and 1975, with an amended composer credit to Grandpa Jones and Billy Walker.
Others have recorded “The Christmas Guest” in the years since. Johnny Cash did a version on his 1980 album Classic Christmas; Reba McEntire recorded it in 1987; and Andy Griffith named his Christmas album The Christmas Guest after it. All of these versions give credit to Jones and Walker as the composers.
Of course, the true inspiration for “The Christmas Guest” goes back to the Gospel According to Matthew (chapter 25, verses 34-40):
Then shall the King say to those on his right hand, Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from [the] world’s foundation: for I hungered, and ye gave me to eat; I thirsted, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was ill, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came to me. Then shall the righteous answer him saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungering, and nourished thee; or thirsting, and gave thee to drink? and when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in; or naked, and clothed thee? and when saw we thee ill, or in prison, and came to thee? And the King answering shall say to them, Verily, I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me.
Think of these words as you listen to Grandpa Jones’ original 1969 version of “The Christmas Guest.”