Music

Johnny Cash's 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day' Has a Timely Message for America

AP Photo/John Duricka

Johnny Cash and June Carter sang "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day" together on the Billy Graham Show over 40 years ago, but the song has a timely message for today's America.

In 1977 when Johnny Cash and June Carter sang the song, it was the year of the New York City blackout and the year Elvis died. We had a new president that year, Jimmy Carter. Star Wars premiered in theatres (Episode IV: A New Hope). Roman Polanski was arrested for "lewd and lascivious acts upon a child."

The song "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day" is an adaptation of a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. Longfellow wrote the verses in 1863 as the Civil War raged, tearing apart the nation. Some of the stanzas from the poem that reference the Civil War were left out of the Christmas carol version:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow's own son had joined the Union Army and was grievously wounded. He eventually recovered, but his despondent father wrote the song during that time, which is so poignant even today as our nation once again faces division.

Johnny Cash recorded the song for his first Christmas album The Christmas Spirit in 1963. The song had previously been recorded by Bing Crosby. Christian band Casting Crowns also covered the tune in 2008.

The lyrics reflect the anguish felt during troubled times, but they also tell of hope for the future, which is really at the heart of the Christmas spirit.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play 
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth goodwill to men.
I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along unbroken song
Of peace on earth goodwill to men.
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said 
For hate is strong that mocks the song
Of peace on earth goodwill to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep 
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth goodwill to men.
Til ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day 
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
On earth goodwill to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doth he sleep 
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth goodwill to men.

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Johnny Cash's 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day' Has a Timely Message for America