Story of the Song | Cowan, Davis ask Santa Claus about ghetto visits
Ahead of Christmas Day 2016, The Sunday Gleaner takes readers back to an enduring question in song about Santa Claus' route.
Tommy Cowan wrote Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come To The Ghetto?) for the supposed season of good cheer more than 30 years ago, but he saw its relevance extend beyond the season of parties, presents, and praise.
"Santa Claus is not just the fat man, Santa Claus, but, in society, how we treat each other," Cowan said.
Sung by Carlene Davis, the song is far from the improbable list of toys Mr Claus would be chuckling over in his North Pole home as it asks in the chorus: "Santa Claus, do you ever come to the ghetto?/ Santa Claus do you ever wonder why we suffer so?"
State of mind
Cowan said the song shows where his mind was at the time, telling The Sunday Gleaner he was focused on the social concerns of people. "I think at the time, I was writing a set of revolutionary songs," he said, referring to an album titled The King's Music.
"One of the things that struck me was just looking at how Christmas was advertised, how it was appealing to shoppers. You would see it in the uptown stores, you would see people light up their trees," he said.
However, as Cowan wrote in Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come to the Ghetto?), for the poor 'good ol' St Nick' was literally a distant figure. He refers to the lines "We see you in the paper/You're on TV" and asks the question, "Is it because we no have chimney?"
"When you see a man with a chimney, he is a man of means," Cowan said.
Then there is the verse that speaks to having had a rough time ("all year long we been beaten down, crying") and the expectations of a reward ("we aint gonna fight, aint gonna fuss/Where are the presents that you brought for us?").
"Where is the reward?" Cowan demanded.
Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come To The Ghetto?) was recorded at Joe Gibbs' studio, Bubbler (keyboards), Mikey Boo (drums), and Bo Pee (guitar) among the musicians. Davis doubled up, singing backing vocals as well as lead, and Dean Fraser also contributed to the harmonies.
Cowan had been to another studio before and was explaining the song to a producer. He asked Cowan to share exactly what he had in mind and then started writing down the lyrics. Realising that piracy was afoot, Cowan said, "I just twisted the lyrics into some foolishness, like 'Santa do you like ackee, saltfish'."
Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come To The Ghetto?) has lasted, Cowan pointing out that the appeal goes right across the Caribbean.
It has been a staple for Davis, especially in the Christmas season, but just as the song was intended to question more than only the season of good cheer, it has been requested outside of December.
"I remember doing events out of season, and people ask for it," Cowan said. "I have done church concerts and they ask for it."