The Mystery of “Pretty Paper” Is Unwrapped

admin —  December 16, 2013 — 56 Comments

The mystery of Fort Worth’s Christmas song is solved.

It took help from readers in Palo Pinto County, plus one surprised family in Conroe.

I wrote last Christmas how for almost 50 years, we’ve heard Willie Nelson’s sad ballad Pretty Paper, about holiday shoppers rushing past a disabled street vendor selling pencils and ribbons while crawling “all alone on a sidewalk” downtown.

Dozens of readers who shopped at the old Leonards Department Store remember the man whom Nelson wrote about in 1963, after he left a local radio career for Nashville.

But we never knew the vendor’s name.

Several readers remembered that the man commuted from Santo, in Palo Pinto County, to take his place outside Leonards, where he drew sympathy as he crept along the sidewalk on all fours, wearing clunky gloves and kneepads made from old tires and a custom leather vest with a pencil rack and coin box sewn into the back.

Finally, rancher Bob Neely, 82, of Santo called about his former neighbor, Frankie Brierton.

“You could always hear him in town, dragging himself along the gravel street,” Neely said.

It turns out that Brierton refused a wheelchair. He chose to crawl because that’s what he learned growing up after his legs were weakened by a spinal disorder, said his daughter, Lillian Compte, 84, of Conroe.

She couldn’t figure out why anybody would be asking about her father, who died at 74 in 1973. He’s buried in Mineral Wells.

I told her that I think her father is probably the man in the song, selling gift ribbons and “hoping that you won’t pass him by.”

“It’s a pretty song,” she said.

“But I just never thought of it being about my father.”

Brierton worked as a street vendor in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, she said. Besides his Leonards corners at Second and Houston streets or Second and Throckmorton streets downtown, he sold pencils at the Stock Show, at the State Fair and on Main Street in downtown Houston.

He earned a living without government assistance, Compte said.

“He was my father — that’s all I knew,” she said.

“He sold pencils. He crawled around on his hands and knees. But we never did without.”

Her son, Rick Compte, 58, said he admires his grandfather. And Rick Compte spilled one more secret: Brierton was married seven times.

“You might say,” Rick Compte said, “that he really liked attention.”

He never knew about the song.

If you would like to buy the Pretty Paper track by itself, you can purchase that HERE.

Or, if you would like to get the Christmas With Willie album that includes Pretty Paper & More holiday songs, go HERE.


This text originally appeared in the Star Telegram, and was written by Bud Kennedy



56 responses to The Mystery of “Pretty Paper” Is Unwrapped

  1. Willie has always been my favorite singer i play his recording of pretty papers all year long…i even named my son after him back on dec.10 th 1980. My son has been good for the name..William Edward Jarvis…thanks Willie for the inspiration you have gave me through these 65 years of my life

  2. I have loved this song most of my life and listen every Christmas and it still brings a tear …Thank you Willie for this song and many many others 🙂

  3. Okay, now I’ll never hear the song without thinking of Frankie.My eyes sting every time I hear it, but now I’m gonna need tissues. Love you, Willie! Just bought your Girls album – it’s spectacular! God bless…

  4. What a beautiful song , what a wonderful man that inspired the song. I hope his family is proud of him ! The story made me cry !

  5. This is a very touching song always. I’ve grown up on most all old legends country songs. And I must say that willie Nelson has always been a long time favorite of mine. I’ve always told people that every country song has meaning. It’s a love story gone wrong, living in a hard time growing up, are judt the plain truth. I’ll turn 50 Thursday December the19. I’ve meet Waylon Hank jr. Beento a cash concert. But I’ve always wanted to meet the one that’s long lived on my eight tracksto CD ‘s. Willie Nelson is a true legend on my radio. I finally in 2006 went to his satellite radio station. And man being a truck driver it’s keep me awake for hours of lonely highway miles and tears . But my one wish is to site and talk with him. That would be my ultimatehalf wsy mark in life love ya Willie. Forever a fan. Wayne Crenshaw

  6. There is just no way it comes any better than this .. singer included.. Willie is just beautiful ..

  7. My favorite Christmas song! I still have the ALBUM (just no way to play it) and used to play it and the Family Bible Album all the time for years! Thanks to Willie for a beautiful song!! Glad the mystery is solved.

  8. Willie, being me and my family’s all time favorite musician, Pretty Papers is my favorite Christmas song, EVER!! This song has always made me stop and think about the real meaning of Christmas!! thank you Willie

  9. I’ve always loved this song. – My favorite Christmas song actually and I’ve had the CD for years and it’s the first one I pull out and play every year.

  10. What a pretty song. I had no idea that would be what the song was about.makes me love this song even more. Love u bunches Willie♡♡

  11. That song has always been one of my favorite memories.I thought about the story that song tells just the other day and wanderd where the story came from. My hats off to him for supporting his family. Merry Christmas Everybody.

  12. I grew up in Mineral Wells Texas,I remember him on the streets when I was growing up.

    • I grew up in Mineral Wells also. My mom told me many years ago that Willie had been in town, when I was younger, but I don’t remember. Glad I saw your comment.

  13. I Always Thought This Was A Roy Orbinson Song.

  14. Willie is and always has been my hero. This was an interesting article…the rest of the story!

  15. Beautiful sad song, I never knew you it was about, but I’m glad to know, keep writing great songs Willie! !Merry Christmas.


  17. Great song by a great songwriter. Keep going Willie!!

  18. that is a beautiful song love to hear willy sing it i seen an talked to willy at du quion il at a motel my 2 kids won’t never forget it

  19. Pretty Paper by Willie Nelson has been my favorite Christmasw song since I was four years old.

  20. I’ve loved this song ever since I heard it. Wasn’t till I read story here and listened to verse that I really understand. Thank you!

  21. This touched my heart and adds much meaning to the beautiful song. Thank you for sharing ~ Merry Christmas and may God bless!

  22. Donna Newell Swirynsky December 16, 2013 at 7:49 PM

    I could see Willie writing about this. His songs have touched so many hearts as he reached feelings we all share. Merry Christmas sweet man.

  23. Merry Christmas guys!!! Love you all so much! So sorry about Ray…”I;ll fly away”! Here’s to the rest of us making it to that shore!! xo

  24. I have been a Willie fan for many years. This is the song my children grew up knowing as the first song on Christmas Day, and now my grand kids as well. I never knew the story until now. This makes it even more special.

  25. I just realized…I remember this disabled man. I used to go downtown with Mom when she worked at Leonard’s Department Store in the mid 60s. I had the run of downtown on those Saturdays. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. Until I read this tonight, I had no idea that I saw this man, but now, I remember seeing him on his knees and his pencil box across his back. Not sure why, but I’m crying…

  26. this by far is my favorite Christmas song of all time. it just goes to show the best music is written when noticing anothers misfortune, even though the one with misfortune thinks there is none…we need to stop EVERYDAY, and look around us to see peoples misfortunes and help, to here the weary songs they sing, to be apart of the solution…to make pretty paper for all~…blessings all~

  27. Willie Nelson some how makes even the ugly parts of life beautiful. Makes you think that it’s all beautiful.

  28. i wonder if other people that are fans of Willie feel that same warm fuzzy feeling when he sings these soft songs-I have his original album (Pretty Papers) the blue cover with the Blue Ribbon on it-it seems that I have been listening to Willie forever-I can’t remember when I first heard him-but I have loved him for a very -long time-I’m 86 years old as of yesterday-and I will continue being a fan of Willies as long as I’m here-Thank You Willie Nelson for so many beautiful songs-Love You:-)

  29. I was just a child about 6 years old and I remember him selling pencils at the Brazos Shopping Center in Mineral Wells.

  30. Beautiful & sad, just like the song. He nailed it!

  31. Willie is a wonderful person with a big heart and also a singing legend. He’s always the first to help for a worthy cause without being asked like the farmer’s aide benefit awhile back. I am a fellow Texan and love all his songs, especially like “Seven Spanish Angels.” He shows so much feeling in his songs that it paints a picture. Wish I could have the pleasure of actually meeting him someday, but I know he’s a busy man.


  33. This is one of the prettiest songs I think i have ever heard.

  34. Several years ago I heard a conversation on WBAP about this song. The DJ stated that Willie had written this song after a Christmas shopping trip to downtown Fort Worth as a child with his grandparents. He did write it about the man mentioned herein. It is a beautiful song, and even more beautiful when one knows the story behind it. It also gives us a glimpse into the depth of Willie’s soul and shows us that even as a child he was very gifted. He has such compassion and an understanding of the human soul. Willie is truly touched by the angels. I wish we knew the stories behind more of his songs. May God continue to bless you and keep you, Dear Willie.

  35. I just this song brings a tear every time I hear this song

  36. I have this song on a casette tape, and now on a CD. This is my all time favorite Christmas song. It is the same with all his albums. I have been a Willie Nelson fan since I was a young girl. My youngest son bought me tickets to one of his concerts. They weren’t front row seats by any means, but I did get to, at least, see and hear him in person. The thrill of a lifetime. I also visited my sister in San Antonio and got to go to the place where he got his start in his singing career.

  37. That is a great story. The man had gumption and grit…unlike many today

  38. My whole family loves Willie Nelson…… Me & my husband went to see him & David Allen Coe in 1986 at Ocean Center in Daytona, FL…. Was about 5 seats back from front of stage…. Loved the show so much…
    Still have my cap with Willies name on it…… Great night in Daytona
    Thanks for the memories

  39. I love willie.he was so handsome as a young man.wish i could meet him in person.maybe one day.

  40. I never knew all these years, that song was about a vendor! I’m from ft.worth and am now58! It is a moving and beautiful song that touched my heart!t from teri

  41. Billy Wayne Stripling December 17, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    Would just like to thank Willie for being the wonderful person he is. Willie you have done so many wonderful things for people all through your live. I thank GOD that I have lived during the time I have and been able to enjoy your music. My life would have a huge empty pplace in it if it wasnt for you. You have been my inspiration for learning how to play guitar and I thank you for that. I have been to so many of your shows that I couldnt count the times and really miss you playing at the Summitt in Houston on New Years Eve, dont think I missed many of those shows. Also got to meet you at the Isle Of Capri, you may rememberbecause I was wearing a vest that reminded you of the time Cut-N-Shoot H.O.G presented you with one and made you an honerary member… meeting you was a dream come true!!! I love you Willie and pray that you continue to be blessed with good health and live as long as you want, you have blessed us all with your good deeds and great music and songwriting. Thank you so much!!!

  42. December 17, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Im disabled address where I can buyn without the internet, god bless you jennie I am 68 and love to hear him and do want the album.

  43. Roy Orbison recorded the song in 1963 and it was a big hit. Willie recorded it in 1979.

  44. What a cool story. Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂

  45. This song is very special to our family. My dad, Frank Heck used to sing this song on Christmas Eve for years. He would drink a few whiskeys and sing away. He would take the needle from the record player and slide it against the album to replay the song. He did not care that he scratched the album. Every time the part came on where the guy was sitting all alone on the sidewalk, my dad would hang his head and say “”That poor bastard””. On the day of his funeral which was September 13th, 2013 we played Willie singing this song, and at that part, all of us children said under our breaths, “”That poor bastard””. God bless you dad…….

  46. I was married on December 2, 1969. We walked out of the courthouse at 12 noon. We got into our car & the first song we heard was “Pretty Papers”. It is my favorite Christmas song ever! Thanks for the memories Willie! You are the greatest & this story is very moving! Have a blessed day!

  47. My son, a huge fan of Willie’s (aren’t we all), just sent me this. I got chills as I read. I’m seventy and I spent quite a bit of my childhood playing up and down Santo’s one block “downtown”. My Grandad owned the grocery store on the north end of the street. I’m 99% sure my sister, cousins, and I knew this man. Of course, my grandparents and parents are gone now. But if these names sound familiar to any one following this story, write me at . . . Buddy Wallis(fiddle player Willie probably knew), Elmer and Myrtle Wallis, the Jordans, the Smarts, and/or Columbus Lee.

  48. Linda Freeman Owen December 24, 2013 at 1:46 PM

    This story brought me to tears, I have always wanted to know who wrote this song, I was living in downtown Ft Worth, in 1957 ~ 58~59. I remember the man selling pencils and Leondards dept store and the pretty lights. I did not know they all went together . If we could just turn the clock back to this time for just a little while~~~

  49. I grew up in Fort Worth and remember seeing Frankie many times sitting on the sidewalk by the Leonard’s Department Store. This song is very special. I sang it this last Christmas time and I think most of the people there heard it for the first time. They really were moved by the song. They clapped and made comments, not for my terrible singing, but for the song and what it represents. They broke the mold when they made Willie.

  50. This sounds great , but its not true. There used to be a blind guitar picker on the corner where the bus stopped at granby and east main street in portsmouth virginia .I used to give him a dollar to play music for me and he played lots of songs my dad played at home , including ; “rubber dolly” , “all around the water tank waitin for a train”——and—this song you are calling pretty paper—-. He had a cup tied to his guitar and he stood as he sang, it was full of pencils with ribbons tied to them. He must have written this song .

    He was blind and had no glass eyes .I always assumed someone let him out and picked him back up , but I never knew.

    This was in 1957/1958–while I was in the united states marine corps and stationed on the uss valley forge aircraft carrier.

  51. My husband and I LOVE this song! We listen to it all throughout the Christmas Holidays! Willie we <3 U!

    Kathy and Don

  52. I hadn’t heard this song in years. It reminds me of two things, my ex mother in law who strictly country music, and last year when my 21 year old son brought home a homeless young man on a cold night for supper, and to spend the night in warmth. My son gave him 2 or 3 pair of his own newer socks, and kept the thin ones he had been wearing. I was unsure would come clean at all. He said he gave the man his own bed, and he slept on the floor in from of the door—just in case. I hadn’t known the young man was homeless until after he’d left. My son had told him that he was someone he’d known from school. I am so proud of my son, but we did have a discussion about potential dangers that could have arisen. Still, Jesus watched over us, that night I saw the heart of God in my child.

  53. I remember this man. My Mother bought pencils from him on Houston St. by Leonard’s. I remember feeling pity for him, but now see he didn’t need pity. I also remember those pencils being in the drawer of her Singer sewing machine for many years afterward. Every time I saw those pencils I would think of him.

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