It’s not exactly a Christmas standard on the order of “O Holy Night” or “Jingle Bells,” but “Pretty Paper” – written by Willie Nelson and first recorded by Roy Orbison – is one of the best-known Christmas songs in the country and popular music canons.
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Nelson wrote “Pretty Paper” in the early 1960s about a disabled man who sold Christmas wrap from the sidewalk in Fort Worth. When Nelson played the song for the legendary Nashville label owner Fred Foster in 1963, Foster sent the demo off to one of his acts, Roy Orbison, who was in London at the time. According to the 2017 book The Authorized Roy Orbison, written by his sons Roy Jr., Wesley and Alex, Orbison – who was doing some shows with four oddly-coiffed kids called The Beatles – was severely under the weather when he went into the studio to cut the song. After several takes he finally got it, and it became a Christmas hit on various charts in the U.S. When the song was released in the UK for Christmas a year later in 1964, it was a hit there as well.
The song may not have made a lot of sense to listeners initially, with lyrics about a guy on the ground trying to sell Christmas wrapping accessories:
Crowded street, busy feet hustle by him/Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh
There he sits all alone on the sidewalk/Hoping that you won’t pass him by
Should you stop, better not, much too busy/You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly
In the distance the ringing of laughter/And in the midst of the laughter he cries
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue/Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write “I love you”/Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Columnist Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram eventually learned that the song was a true story, and that Nelson had written about a man named Frankie Brierton, who had a spinal disorder, and who literally rolled, crawled and dragged himself on the sidewalks and sold wrapping supplies from his post on the ground for years in Fort Worth and Houston. It also made sense that Nelson, and possibly Orbison, both being native Texans, were familiar with the man.
Around the same time that Orbison released the song in the UK, Nelson recorded it himself with the legendary Chet Atkins at the helm. Nelson also later recorded the song with his piano-playing sister Bobbie Nelson for their 1997 album Hill Country Christmas. But perhaps most significantly, Nelson recorded the song on his 1979 Christmas album titled Pretty Paper, on an album that was otherwise filled with Christmas standards like “Silent Night” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The song has also been covered by Kenny Chesney, the Lumineers and others. So after you read this, you can track down several versions of the song to add to your playlist while you’re wrapping those presents – unless you’re just putting them in bags.