NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Willie Nelson’s Timeless Christmas Song

(Editor’s note: During the holiday season, thoughts turn to fond memories of friendships past and present. Chet Flippo, CMT’s longtime editorial director who died in 2013, will always be remembered as a friend of country music and its artists. To celebrate his life and legacy, we’re continuing a holiday tradition by sharing one of his classic Nashville Skyline columns first published in 2009.)

Roy Orbison made it a standard of his forever when he recorded it, but Willie Nelson wrote his lovely Christmas song, “Pretty Paper,” about a guy I knew slightly. He was a man who had lost both his legs above the knee and — in those pre-miracle artificial limbs days — had his leg stumps covered with heavy leather padding and wore thick gloves to pull and slide and scoot his way up and down the sidewalk by the palms of his hands and on his stumps.

He sold pencils from a tin cup affixed to his back and also peddled paper and ribbons at Christmas time, as I recall. He mainly worked the sidewalks by Leonard’s Department Store in Fort Worth, Texas, where I was working part time in high school. I have sadly forgotten the man’s name, but he always had a smile for everyone and a great sales pitch, and I sometimes would stop and say hello when I would see him. Every time I hear “Pretty Paper,” I see this man in my mind’s eye, to this day.

Willie, who was then also living in Fort Worth (I met Willie years later and asked him about the source of “Pretty Paper”), obviously noticed this man, too, and was affected enough to write a lasting tribute to this now-anonymous, handicapped street peddler. Willie later recorded the song, but when Orbison found it in 1963, he made it famous worldwide. Other artists who have recorded the song include Glen Campbell, Kenny Chesney, Chris Isaak and Freddy Fender.

Here are some of the lyrics to “Pretty Paper”:

Crowded streets busy feet hustle by you
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
Better hurry, my, how time does fly
And in the distance the ringing of laughter
And in the midst of the laughter he cries
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue …

Merry Christmas.