John Popper on Working with Trey Anastasio to Create “Divided Sky for Christmas”

December 25, 2017

Trey Anastasio and John Popper at Fare Thee Well

John Popper’s memoir, Suck and Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed to Tell, written with Relix editor Dean Budnick, came out last year. In the book he shares his musical relationship with Phish and how he came to use the band’s song “Divided Sky” to create a contemporary Christmas classic (or at least copyright the word Christmas). Here he shares that story from the book…

In the chapter titled “Divided Sky for Christmas” Popper sets describes his first meeting with Phish when they shared a bill at the Ukranian National Home in New York on December 15, 1989.  He remembers, “From the start there was always something else going on beyond the music as well, another level of communication and connection with the audience. That night they decided to prank their former lighting guy, Tim, who would occasionally play harmonica with them, by pretending that I was their new lighting guy, Chris. The band was going to give Tim the tape and say that I was Chris. So before I came on, Trey told the crowd to call out ‘All right, Chris!’ Then after I was done I said, ‘I’d better get back to those lights.’

Popper goes on to detail some of his other encounters with the group including a show on February 6, 1993 at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom when Popper , who was then in a wheelchair, was to sit in with the group. He writes, “They had me on stage, and I insisted on being covered with a tarp the entire show so people wouldn’t know what I was. Then they unveiled me toward the end and I sat in with them. But just to make the gag work, I sat there the entire show covered in a tarp.”

The chapter relates his other interactions with the band members, over the ensuing years including  a recent discovery that Popper has made which led him to issue a challenge to drummer Jon Fishman: “What I found out relatively recently is that I can play the vacuum cleaner in a very different way from Jon Fishman. I find that with the shape of my mouth, I can play notes and really play scales. But he’s already popularized the vacuum so much that it would be hackneyed to try to fill his shoes. But someday I hope to get into a vacuum cleaner duet with him. That would be awesome. I’d like to use this book as an opportunity to extend a standing offer.”

After some other memories of his interactions with Phish, the chapter concludes with  a story that is fitting for today:

“For a while Phish was the only music in my car CD changer, and I would constantly listen to all of their albums in succession. Compared to what we were doing chordally, there was nothing like it. Their song “Divided Sky” was my favorite—the way Trey took this simple melody on his guitar and played it without time for a second, with time for a second, and really milk it—I was obsessed with that song. Then I realized it had the same chords as “Bingo Was His Name-O” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” which led me to think there was a Christmas melody in there. I wanted to work on something with the same chords that, at the end, would reference “Divided Sky.” I tried to get my band to do it, but they weren’t Phish fans like I was, so they kept asking, “Why are we doing this?”

“But then we were approached to contribute a song to the Very Special Christmas 3 compilation album benefitting the Special Olympics. I wrote a melody to the “Divided Sky” chords, but it was nothing as elaborate. Then at the end I put the “Divided Sky” reference. Because it was a charity, I called Trey and told him, “I want to use this melody. I want to write this song and give you credit for writing it with me.” He said sure and made a few jokes like, “I’ll see you in court, buddy,” but it was for charity so he didn’t mind, and that gave me the license to “Divided Sky” the shit out of it.

“There was a part when I put my melody with his, and there were eight harmonies singing each verse. It’s one of my favorite songs because you have all these harmonies working at the same time, and it was one of those times when I really hit it out of the park with the lyrics.

“It was what I’ve felt about Christmas, it was what I wanted to say, it was full of all sorts of musical stuff I wanted to do, and it was on a nice vehicle, a Christmas record. And I called it “Christmas” so we could copyright Christmas. I have not as yet received any checks, I have not sued anybody, but if I could somehow sue Santa Claus, it would make one hell of a movie.”

Words by John Popper,
Music by Trey Anastasio and John Popper
Comes the time for Christmas
And I really have to ask
If this is feeling merry
How much longer must it last?
I wish a one-horse open sleigh
Would come carry me away.
But I’ve been waiting here all day,
And one just hasn’t come my way.
Now excuse me if I’m not being reverent,
But I was hoping for a miracle to hold me, wash me,
Save me from my righteous doubt as I watch helpless
And everybody sings.
If it’s Chanukah or Kwanza,
Solstice, harvest, or December twenty-fifth,
Peace on earth to everyone
And abundance to everyone you’re with.
Comes the time for Christmas,
And as you raise your yuletide flask,
There’s like this feeling that you carry
As if from every Christmas past.
It’s as if each year it grows.
It’s like you feel it in your toes.
And on and on your carol goes,
Harvesting love among your woes.
I want to buy into the benevolent,
And I was hoping for a miracle to hold me, wash me,
Make me know what it’s about,
As the longing in me makes me want to sing
Noel or Navidad,
Season celebration, or just the end of the year.
Christmas can mean anything,
And I mean to keep its hope forever near.
As if a cold and frozen soul is warm to love
By love’s own hand,
So goes the prayer if for a day, peace on earth
And good will to man.
At twenty, below the winter storm, it billows,
But the fire is so warm inside
And the children, while nestled in their pillows,
Dream of St. Nicholas’s ride
And how the next day they’ll get up and they will play
In the still-falling Christmas snow,
And together we’ll celebrate forever,
In defiance of the winds that blow.
My God in heaven, now I feel like I’m seven,
And the spirit calls to me as well,
As if Christmas had made the winter warmer,
Made a paradise from what was hell,
As if a cold and frozen soul is warm to love
By love’s own hand.
So goes the prayer, if for a day, peace on earth
And good will to man.
I wish a one-horse open sleigh would come carry me away,
And I’ll keep waiting through next May
Until Christmas comes my way.