It’s 21 years since Paul Kelly first narrated the story of a prisoner named Joe and his longing to be with family at Christmas time in his hit song How To Make Gravy.
In the song the protagonist writes a letter to his family — penned on December 21 — that includes a recipe for how to make gravy for Christmas dinner.
Fans of the tune have since coined the date as “Gravy Day”.
“You never know what’s going to happen to the song after you write them,” Kelly told Madeleine Morris on ABC Radio.
“It was a song that doesn’t have a chorus, it’s set in prison, so I never thought it would be a hit song or anything.”
Origins of the song
In 1996 Kelly was invited to record a song for an annual charity Christmas album organised by fellow musician Lindsay Field.
When Kelly discovered his chosen song had been performed on a previous year’s compilation, Field encouraged him to write an original.
With no shortage of Christmas songs out there, Kelly’s challenge was to come up with something unique and distinctly his own.
“I started thinking … maybe I’ll write it from the point of view of somebody who is missing Christmas, who can’t get to Christmas,” he said.
“Why can’t they get there? Maybe they’re overseas and they can’t get home. Then I thought, oh, he’s in prison.
“The song wrote itself from there.”
Playing the song in prisons
Kelly said he had played the song quite a few times in correctional institutions but received mixed responses from the audience.
“It’s funny playing in prisons because some of the audience like it and some of them couldn’t care less.
“It’s not like a normal gig.”
More than two decades since it was written, Kelly now includes the song in every live setlist and said he never tired of playing it for the crowds.
“It’s one of those songs that’s got so many gears in it, even if you’re tired [and] you’re struggling.
“Once I start playing that song it lifts you up and takes you along with it.”
Recipe for success
Due to the song’s notoriety, Kelly said he was often tasked with making gravy at family dinners but would vary the recipe on occasions.
“Sometimes I got into trouble for that recipe; every now and then a foodie comes up to me and says, ‘you don’t put tomato sauce in gravy’,” he said.
And whatever happened to Joe? Did he ever get out of prison on good behaviour?
“He seems to be like the character in some of my other songs; he’s a bit like the guy in To Her Door.
“I think he got out.”