Can’t Make It to the Manger

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Back in the early part of this century, I was amazed and delighted when my old friend Steve Ripley, the internationally known, Oklahoma-based music figure, called and asked if I wanted to help him with a nostalgic song he was writing called “Gone Away,” which he planned to put on his first solo disc. This was about a decade after he’d first climbed onto the national charts with his platinum-selling, country-rock group, The Tractors, and around 35 years since we had first met as disc jockeys at Oklahoma State University’s rock ’n’ roll station, KVRO.

I not only love Steve; I deeply admire and enjoy the work he has done over the years. So I, of course, was thrilled to have the opportunity of working with him. Over the next couple of weeks, we talked about the concept he had in mind – which was, as I saw it, essentially a riff on writer John O’Hara’s famous observation about nostalgia being a kind of homesickness – and I emailed him a number of ideas for possible lyrics. To be honest, my contributions to the tune ended up being pretty minimal, but Steve was kind enough to give me a piece of the publishing rights anyway. He also invited me to play my 1965 Vox Jaguar organ on the track – another wonderful Ripley gift. Hearing my old Vox wheezing along on the finished product still has the power to give me goosebumps.

“Gone Away” was the first single from the Ripley disc, released in 2004. Eight years later, it was covered, with an additional countrified verse added, by country legends Whispering Bill Anderson and the Oak Ridge Boys (who utilized the musical bed Steve had created, which means you can hear my entry-level playing on Whispering Bill’s version as well).

There’s something bigger than ourselves to which we can and should aspire.

I guess having a song to which I’d contributed go into national release made me think I was a songwriter. And while that notion continues to be debunked with alarming regularity, I’m still at it and have been for some time.

My files tell me it was a year after the release of “Gone Away” that I first began trying to wrestle a holiday number to the ground. I haven’t yet succeeded, but it’s still kicking around in my head, and with Yuletide on the way, I might at least make something out of it by focusing on it for this column.

Right about here, I should say that if you’re a songwriter who wants to hit it big, aiming toward the holiday market looks like a fine choice. According to the Celebrity Net Worth and The Richest websites, of the top 10 moneymaking songs ever written, three are holiday tunes: “White Christmas” (having earned, so far, a reported $36 million for writer Irving Berlin and his estate), “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” ($25 million) and “The Christmas Song” ($19 million).

On the other hand, there’s lots of competition. Tons of new seasonal songs hit the airwaves every year, and few of them get any lasting traction. Remember, for instance, “The Christmas Shoes,” about that poor kid at a checkout counter on Christmas Eve, who didn’t have enough money to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother? It was so popular for a while that it formed the basis of a made-for-TV movie starring Rob Lowe. It hung in there on the seasonal playlists for a few years, but I haven’t heard it much lately.

With the exception of the occasional anomaly like “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer” – which, amazingly, came out 37 years ago –  most of the holiday songs that stick around seem to be a mixture of the secular, and, if not obviously the sacred, then at least the kind of sentimental hopefulness that suggests there’s something bigger than ourselves to which we can and should aspire, what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” (Maybe the best recent example of this is “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” originally written to help raise money for Ethiopian famine victims in 1984.)

My partly finished composition mixes all three of the biggest Yuletide-tune elements – the secular, the sacred and the sentimental. It’s called “Can’t Make It to the Manger,” and it’s a story-song about a young guy from a small town known far and wide for the outdoor living-nativity tableau it presents every year. This particular holiday season, however, our protagonist is on a new job in a city several hours away, forced to work over the holidays and therefore unable to get back to his hometown this year – the first time he’s ever had to spend Christmas away from family and friends.

As the song starts, he’s making his way despairingly through the frigid urban landscape, feeling sorry for himself, when he passes a bus station and is broached by a young woman asking him for money. She says she needs $20 more to get a ticket home and insists she’ll pay it back. He gives her the cash and his business address, confident he can kiss that 20 bucks goodbye. Then again, it’s Christmas, a time in which kindness and compassion are supposed to be stoked in souls, and, what the heck, maybe she needs it more than he does.

A few days later, while working at his nearly deserted office, he gets an envelope in the mail. Inside is a $20 bill and a photograph of the living nativity from his town. The young woman he helped can clearly be seen playing Mary, mother of Jesus. An accompanying note says she couldn’t have made it to the manger without him.

As I’ve tried to get this down over the years, things have kept getting in the way. Why doesn’t he know her, since they’re both from the same little town? Is it too much of a coincidence for them both to be from there? Is she maybe from another place instead, a relative or friend of someone involved with the nativity scene, who got pulled in at the last minute? Is that why she had to panhandle the 20 bucks, because she was short on ready cash? And once I figure all this out, how do I get it down in a couple of lines?

Sure, I’m overthinking it. But whatever the problem, the fact remains that after more than a decade, all I have are a few verses, some of which work and some of which don’t. Out of those, I have managed to pen a couple, I think, that come pretty close to what I want to capture regarding the magic and sentimentality and even love that the season can bring:

Wherever you are in all the world
In darkness or despair
If you lift your head and look for the star
The manger’s always there.

They say God works in mysterious ways
And now I think I see
I couldn’t make it to the manger
So the manger made it to me.

Whatever you put your faith in during this special season, wherever and whatever your own particular manger might be, my hope and prayer is that you find it – or that it finds you. Happy holidays.

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