Hippie-friendly country-pop star John Denver died on October 12, 1997, at the age of 53, when an experimental aircraft he was flying crashed off the coast of Point Pinos in California. His career had trailed off by the late 90s, his records weren't charting anymore, and he'd grown frustrated by the way in which things had slowed down—but his reputation as a warm, decent, radio-ready American hitmaker remained intact. "Back Home Again," "Rocky Mountain High," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," and the indestructible "Take Me Home, Country Roads" all spoke to a painless, wistful utopia way away from the city. Those songs became his legacy. In an obituary at The Independent, Spencer Leigh put it plainly: "John Denver will be remembered as a singer-songwriter who told us that life was perfect."
John Denver also recorded this:
"Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)" is one of the most upsetting Christmas songs I've ever heard. It's a tear-stained monologue from a seven-year-old child to his likely alcoholic father, built out of three identical choruses: "Please, daddy, don't get drunk this Christmas / I don't wanna see my momma cry." There are only two verses to dig into—the first of those has the kid recalling his father passing out underneath the Christmas tree, and the second is a heartbreaking set-piece:
Momma smiled and looked outside the window
She told me, 'Son, you better go upstairs'
Then you laughed and hollered 'Merry Christmas'
I turned around and saw my momma's tears
If you clicked on the video above, you're now listening to the most widely circulated version of "Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)," the one that Denver recorded for 1975's Rocky Mountain Christmas. (It also ended up on a posthumous compilation LP, The Classic Christmas Album.) It's distressingly upbeat, one major chord bounding into the next, Denver yodelling a little halfway through the chorus in what seems like a desperate attempt to add a little levity. It's so breezy that nobody has been able to tap into the agony ever since. Alan Jackson recorded a straight-up cheesy version for his Honky Tonk Christmas in 1993—that didn't help. The Decemberists, who could tease comic macabre out of a sunny day at the beach, recorded a cover in 2007, but, despite lead singer Colin Maloy's best efforts, their version still sounds playful.
Given his ain't-life-somethin' reputation, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Denver didn't write "Please, Daddy…" himself. But the original songwriters weren't known for their pitch-black social realism either. The song is credited to Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, the then-married couple best known for fronting The Starland Vocal Band and penning the group's massive, nitrous-happy ode to daytime sex, "Afternoon Delight." It was Danoff and Nivert who first came up with "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and, after deciding not to sell the song on to Johnny Cash, finished it with Denver.
And why did Denver record "Please, Daddy..." in the first place? He didn't seem to hate the holidays. Rocky Mountain Christmas is an almost nauseatingly family-friendly record, comprised mostly of standards like "Silent Night" and "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer." There's an earnest, adult-contemporary version of "Jingle Bells" towards the end. On the record, "Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)" is sandwiched between "Silver Bells" and a more twinkly and romantic Denver original called "Christmas for Cowboys." Denver even starred in a Muppets TV special called A Christmas Together at the peak of his fame in 1979, and, because the internet isn't always all bad, the whole thing's been preserved on YouTube. This guy didn't just enjoy the holiday—he loved it enough to look adoringly at Fozzie Bear when he messed up his lines in "The 12 Days of Christmas."
There's no real answer here, no obvious reason why Denver decided to point to a broken home on this, a song he didn't write. There is, at least, a slightly less incongruous recording of the track languishing in his back catalog. The first-ever version was made for his 1973 LP, Farewell Andromeda. It's still locked into major chords, and the group chant in the chorus sounds more like a Christmas Eve singalong than a plea for a happy home. But the yodelling has disappeared and, using only acoustic instruments, Denver gets at a morsel of the anguish in the lyrics.
This one's slightly more reassuring than the Rocky Mountain Christmas recording and all of its dissonance between lyric and melody. Just don't play it at parties.
Alex Robert Ross is a Christmas cowboy on Twitter.