#MusicMonday: “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

“So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun… A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”

Happy_Xmas_(War_is_Over)“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) is a Christmas song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but it is also a protest song. Lennon and Ono made music and led activism promoting peace and condemning the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and their Christmas song was no different.

Specifically, “Happy Xmas” promoted personal accountability and empowerment to stop the war in Vietnam with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “so this is Christmas and what have you done?” and “Let’s stop all the fight.”

The song shared the same message as a billboard campaign that Lennon and Ono put together in December of 1969, 2 years before the song’s release. They had billboards put up in major cities all over the world that read, “”WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”

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In the opening, whispered lines of the song Yoko wishes her daughter (from a previous marriage) Kyoko a happy Christmas followed by John doing the same to his son (from his previous marriage) Julian. The couple’s son Sean had not been born yet.

The song was written and recorded in New York City and the children’s voices featured on the song are from the Harlem Community Choir.

The song has been extensively covered over the years including by Sarah McLachlan, The Fray, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, and many others.

The song was not an immediate hit, but has come to be a Christmas classic that invokes introspection and a renewed call for peace.

Full lyrics:

(Happy Christmas, Kyoko
Happy Christmas, Julian)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
For weak and for strong (If you want it)
For rich and the poor ones (War is over!)
The road is so long (Now!)

And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
For black and for white (If you want it)
For yellow and red ones (War is over!)
Let’s stop all the fight (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
And what have we done? (If you want it)
Another year over (War is over!)
And a new one just begun (Now!)
And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
We hope you have fun (If you want it)
The near and the dear ones (War is over!)
The old and the young (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

War is over, if you want it
War is over, now!

Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas

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#MusicMonday: “Born in the USA” and 4 other songs you didn’t know were about the Vietnam War

Ok, so you may know that a few of these are about the Vietnam War (1955-1975), but some are a bit more obscure or surprising. The Vietnam War is one of the least understood, most contested and divisive wars in American history. The war was so hotly opposed by the American public that returning veterans did not receive the hero’s welcome that previous generations of soldiers had. Within the military itself, morale was low owing to the inconclusive end of the war, the draft, and the length and brutality of the war.

The anti-war movement in the U.S. spawned a number of songs. Here are 5 songs about the Vietnam War era, including the protests against it, the heightened political tension of the time period, and the long-term effects.

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  • “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival – 1969

“Some folk are born made to wave the flag, whoo they’re red, white, and blue and when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you. Lord, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son.”

“Fortunate Son” addresses class differences when it comes to war. The songwriter himself, John Fogerty, is a veteran, having served in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War. He was inspired to write the song by hearing about wealthy, privileged people’s son’s receiving deferments for military service or given choice positions in the military. While the song doesn’t specifically address the Vietnam War it was inspired by that era with the draft going on and the anger that many felt about being drafted to fight in a war whose cause was ill defined. Many did not know what they were fighting for and felt they were fighting for rich leaders’ interests. Fogerty was also inspired to write the song because of the broader idea that wars were instigated by the wealthy leaders but actually fought by the poor soldiers. The song was released at the height of anti-war sentiment as the Vietnam War continued to escalate after promises that the U.S. would soon pull back. It quickly became an anti-war anthem and hit.

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  • “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young- 1970

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own, This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.”

“Ohio” was a direct reaction to the deaths of four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Students had been gathering to protest the recently announced Cambodian campaign which escalated and expanded the Vietnam War. National Guardsman had been called in prior to the incident because of general campus unrest, riots, and destruction of property in the area. The National Guardsman were dispersing a large group of students and had nearly cleared the area when they shot into a crowd, killing 4 and wounding 9 others. The exact reasoning for why the Guardsman decided to open fire is still unknown. Two of the students killed were not even participants in the protest but had simply been walking between classes. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded the song after seeing images of the incident in Life Magazine. The song was banned on some radio stations because of its challenge to the Nixon administration, but it quickly became a popular song with counterculture anti-war protesters.

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  • “War” by Edwin Starr – 1970

“War, huh, good god, What is it good for, Absolutely nothing, listen to me
Oh, war, I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes
When their sons go to fight, And lose their lives.”

Originally recorded by the Temptations, “War” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label. The label ultimately decided to withhold the version recorded by the Temptations because of concerns of upsetting the group’s conservative fans. Instead, it was re-recorded by Edwin Starr. The song became a number one hit and is one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. It was released in 1970, after the My Lai Massacre had been made public and as the Vietnam War escalated into Cambodia, both events causing anti-war sentiment to grow in the U.S. As such it resonated with the growing negative public opinion of the war. The song has gone on to be featured in a number of movies and television shows. Bruce Springsteen added the song to his live sets in the the 1980s. The lyrics speak a broad anti-war message rather than specifically targeting the Vietnam War, giving the song a long life and making it applicable to all wartime peace efforts.

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  • “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye – 1971

“Father, father, We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way, To bring some loving here today

Picket lines and picket signs, Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see, Oh, what’s going on.”

The original version of this song was inspired by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown group the Four Tops. He witnessed police brutality towards anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California and shared the experience with a songwriter friend of his, Al Cleveland. The result was passed over by the Four Tops who felt it was too risky to record a protest song. Thus, Benson gave it to Marvin Gaye. Gaye, who was and remains more well known for love songs such as “Let’s Get it On,” added his own touches, influenced by his brother, a Vietnam War veteran, and his own take on what he saw going on in the U.S. Gaye explained his inspiration by saying, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” The song captures the dissatisfaction of many with the Vietnam War and the overall political atmosphere of the country at the time.

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  • “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen – 1984
“Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A….
Come back home to the refinery, Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man, He said “son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone…”

This song, released almost 10 years after the Vietnam War ended, speaks to the aftermath of war and the effects on returning veterans. Commonly used as simply a patriotic song because of its “Born in the U.S.A” refrain, its meaning is a bit more complicated.  Like CCR’s “Fortunate Son” it speaks to the class differences in the experience of war, but more generally it addresses the way Vietnam veterans were treated after the war. The veteran in the song was drafted and sent to war for an unclear cause and then returned and, despite being a veteran, struggles to find work and a place in society, haunted by those he lost in Vietnam. The song uses the chorus to highlight the hypocrisy of the treatment of veterans.

All of the songs on this list, while against the Vietnam War, were not necessarily against the soldiers themselves. They were against the decisions of the government and these songs actually lamented the loss of soldiers’ lives, the unfairness of the draft, and, like Fortunate Son and Born in the USA, lamented the treatment of soldiers, especially poor ones, as pawns and the treatment of veterans after the war. However, the Vietnam War remains an unpopular war and that public opinion has affected veterans, with many returning home to a public that saw them as part of an unsuccessful, unnecessary, and meaningless war. Two of the songs, Ohio and What’s Going On, focus on the treatment of anti-war protesters, arguing against police brutality and defending their right to protest.

The impact the war and the draft had on the military has led the military to be volunteer only since then, owing to large scale disciplinary problems, low morale, and other issues. The impacts of the war also continue to affect Vietnam.

To read more about the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre, and protest music, see the links below:

https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/sixties/essays/vietnam-war-and-my-lai-massacre

https://medium.com/war-is-boring/when-motown-went-to-war-against-war-f8f6471f88e4

https://www.cfr.org/blog/twenty-best-vietnam-protest-songs 

https://www.stripes.com/news/special-reports/vietnam-stories/1966/vietnam-the-first-rock-and-roll-war-1.438304

Perspectives on World War I

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1. Also called the Great War. World War I was one of the most deadly wars in history. Casualties mounted higher because of new technology and industrial progress not to mention trench warfare which was grueling, slow, and deadly. Touted as the war to end all war and a war to protect democracy and small nations, nations poured resources and men into the effort.

On this day in 1918 armistice was signed after 4 long years of fighting and the war came to a ceasefire; however, much damage was done and not all conflicts were resolved, creating the germs of what would become World War II.

This post contains quotes from world leaders, soldiers, and civilians, reflecting a few different perspectives on the war and its impact.

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Rudyard Kipling was an English Journalist. This quote was published in 1915 in the Morning Post (London) in the British War propaganda section. 
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From an interview in “Candid Comment on The American Soldier of 1917-1918 and Kindred Topics by The Germans,” which documented post war attitudes of Germans towards Americans.
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Brittain was an English Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse in World War I. She wrote about her experiences in her memoir titled Testament of Youth (1933). Her experience of WWI led her to become a pacifist. 

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Ernest Hemingway, the famous American author, served as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I at the age of 18. Many of his works were influenced by his experience of war. 

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Quote sources: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/04/04/world-war-i-quotes/100031552/

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/World_War_I

Images from Wikimedia Commons; quote graphics made by me using Canva. 

Día de Muertos: Nuestra Celebración

Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead is actually a 3 day celebration in honor and in memory of the deceased. Despite the association with death and skulls, the tradition is all about remembering deceased relatives and honoring their memory. It is a colorful and bright celebration of their lives.

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The modern holiday combines elements of indigenous cultures and traditions with Catholic/Christian practices of Allhallowtide. Dia de Muertos has origins in pre-Colombian traditions, most especially the Aztec festival in honor of the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, the Lady of the Dead, and in memory of deceased ancestors. This festival originally took place in the summer and lasted a month. It gradually shifted to coincide with Christian observance of Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.)

The traditions to honor the dead include setting up an ofrenda. An ofrenda is an altar or offering to the deceased meant to help guide the souls back home to visit with their families. The ofrenda includes a picture of the deceased; flowers, usually Aztec marigolds; food and drink, particularly favorites of the deceased; pan de muerto (bread), sugar skulls; brightly colored paper crafts (papel picado); candles; and sometimes possessions of the deceased.

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My husband and I observe the holiday a bit. We made sugar skull cookies and decorated our ofrenda which includes family photos of his grandfather and aunt who we honored, a candle, bright orange flowers, a decorative skull and muerto figurines, 3 bronze horse figurines (which are always on this shelf but we leave because his abuelo was a rancher), and two sugar skull cookies on papel picado.

Traditional ofrendas are usually larger and include more food including pan de muerto, real sugar skulls, which are made of sugar molded into the shape of skulls (I tried making these last year but they crumbled but I will try again in the future), and other foods that their relative enjoyed.

The three day celebration begins on October 31st as families prepare their ofrendas. November 1 is usually considered Día de los Angelitos or Día de los Inocentes and is meant to honor children who have died. November 2 is the day for adults and is simply called Día de Muertos or Día de los Difuntos. In Mexico and in some places in the US The night of November 2nd is when families visit and decorate the graves of their family members.

I highly recommend the movie Coco for more insight into the meaning of Día de Muertos—it’s beautifully made and really gets to the heart of the meaning–remembering those who have passed.

#MusicMonday- “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

__5af63d3fd1f2dMy husband and I went to see the new Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend. I have long loved the band Queen and found Mercury’s life story interesting so I was excited to see the film, which was very good overall, even though parts of it were historically inaccurate. When the real story is so interesting, I don’t understand why movies still feel the need to heighten the drama by changing timelines or exaggerating conflict…, but I don’t want to spoiler the film, so for now I will just let it inspire today’s music Monday and I will write a more in depth review for later when more people have had a chance to watch it. So, no spoilers below, promise, unless you know absolutely nothing about Freddie Mercury already.

Most people are familiar with the song Bohemian Rhapsody (1975). Written by the band’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, the song is part rock ballad, part mock opera, part gibberish? I wish I could tell you that as a historian I had cracked the code and could tell you exactly what the song is about, but it would be the height of hubris to claim I had a better interpretation than all of those who have been trying to figure it out for 43 years.

I used to think parts of it were references to Mercury’s HIV diagnosis; however, it would be 12 more years after he wrote Bohemian Rhapsody before he received that diagnosis. Many believe the song is a veiled reference to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, as he came to terms with being gay. On the surface the song seemingly tells the story of a “poor boy” on trial for killing someone. Mercury himself never confirmed the meaning of the song, telling listeners to make out what it meant to them.

The song’s operatic section (the part that sounds the most like gibberish) actually uses real words and names taken from real operas and other sources. An article from BBC America offers a glossary of terms for the song which helps to sort it out a bit.

A quick glossary of terms: Scaramouche is a stock character from the Italian clown tradition commedia dell’arte. He’s a fool, but adept at getting himself out of trouble. A fandango is a Spanish flamenco dance. Galileo was a Florentine astronomer, the inclusion of whom may be a nod to noted stargazer Brian May [lead guitarist of Queen, had studied astrophysics]. Figaro is, of course, taken from Rossini’s opera The Barber of SevilleBismillah means “in the name of Allah” and is the first word in The Qu’ran, and “Mamma Mia!” is an Italian exclamation of incredulity or surprise, referring to the Virgin Mary.”

Rather than being inspired by history (though it was a bit through its use of the above allusions), the song itself is a piece of history. At the time it was recorded it was groundbreaking in many ways. It was recorded for the band’s 1975 album, A Night at the Opera and at the time of its release it was considered the most expensive single ever recorded. At 5 minutes and 55 seconds it was an improbable hit. Nonetheless it was wildly popular and a commercial success. It lacked a chorus, another factor that made it an unlikely hit. The song’s promotional video also blazed trails, taking the fledgling practice of video promotions to new heights and pioneering the age of MTV in which music videos became necessary for singles.

The song is considered by many to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Acclaimed for being innovative in its fusing of hard rock with operatic style music, the song has inspired people for decades. Its list of awards and accolades is expansive including being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It topped the charts upon its release and again after Mercury’s death in 1991 when it was rereleased and when it was used in Wayne’s World.

It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them… “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?

—Freddie Mercury

The complete video is below. Take Freddie Mercury’s advice and take a good, hard listen and see what the song means to you.

#MusicMonday: “Monster Mash”

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Monster Mash. It was a graveyard smash.

Monster Mash was released in 1962. Written by Bobby Pickett and Leonard Capizzi and recorded by Pickett and “the Crypt-Kickers.,” the single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from October 20-27, 1962 and has been a Halloween favorite ever since.

The song features Pickett doing an impression of Boris Karloff, a famed horror movie actor. He also does a Dracula impression for one line in the song.

The song was inspired by and danced to the Mashed Potato dance of the era. Monster Mash was danced like the Mashed Potato except with Frankenstein monster arm and hand movements.

Interestingly the sound effects in the song were very low budget. The coffin sound was created by removing a nail from a piece of wood; the cauldron bubbling was simply a straw bubbling water; and the chains rattling were just chains being dropped on a tile floor.

The song tells a story loosely similar to Frankenstein but with a fun, dance twist. A mad scientist’s monster comes to life and performs a new dance which became very popular and led to a party with other monsters.

Below is the video from Bobby Pickett performing the song on American Bandstand October 13, 1964.

#MusicMonday: “I Put a Spell on You”

A song many know because of its numerous cover versions, “I Put a Spell on You” is now included on Halloween playlists, owing partly to its inclusion in the movie Hocus Pocus. However, even before its more overt connection to the Halloween holiday, the song was thought of as shocking, demented, and dark, but not solely for the lyrics which suggest witchcraft or voodoo. Originally written and performed  by Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins,”I Put a Spell on You” was released in 1956 and is the song that earned Jalacy the “Screamin’ Jay” nickname. It was Hawkins’ screaming delivery of the song and his resulting performance style that really gave the song its powerful yet outrageous and slightly sinister tone. The song transformed Hawkins’ career and he became the pioneer of the subgenre of “shock rock,” a genre later popularized by artists including Alice Cooper, KISS, Ozzy Osborne, and Marilyn Manson.

“I Put a Spell on You” was not originally intended to be associated with Halloween at all. It was Hawkins’ delivery of the song in the 1956 recording and the resulting live performances that would change everything for the song and for Hawkins. Hawkins, who had operatic dreams, but was working as a traditional blues singer, originally wrote the song as a traditional blues love ballad with lyrics about getting a lover back after a breakup, influenced by his own personal life. He recorded it as such in 1955 but the track didn’t go anywhere. However, the story goes that a year later when he decided to try rerecording it, the producer brought in food and large quantities of alcohol to the recording session and got everyone drunk resulting in the most well-known version of the song. However, the resulting version of the song also got it banned from radio. In 1956, Hawkins’ singing, screaming, and grunting, complete with animal noises, sounded overtly sexual to mainstream audiences. Even a toned down version wasn’t played on most radio stations. Despite the radio ban, the song was Hawkins’ most commercially successful one, though it never made the top charts.

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Hawkins’ live performances of the song did little to allay the concerns of many groups. He took to appearing on stage in a coffin, rising out dressed in a “screaming wardrobe”  including zebra stripes, bright colors, sometimes a loin cloth, with a spear or a skull on a stick that would sometimes smoke his cigarette while he sang, and with tusks in his nose and a turban on his head. The NAACP denounced his act with concerns that he was propagating stereotypes of African Americans as cannibals or witch doctors. Some African American newspapers and magazines ignored Hawkins, not wanting to promote his music. The song was released in the era of Jim Crow and segregation and understandably there were concerns about the act being consumed by white audiences for which it upheld dangerous and negative images of black people.

Despite all of this, the song was Hawkins’ biggest hit, with Hawkins being featured in DJ Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Revue and has gone on to be covered by numerous artists. Some of the most well-received covers include those of Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marilyn Manson, Bette Midler (in Hocus Pocus), and Annie Lennox, but there have been many more.

Nina Simone’s cover was especially well done with the song taking on a whole new meaning when sung with her amazing voice. Simone slowed the track down more to the ballad tempo it was originally meant to be, but with powerhouse vocals and jazz style scatting. The track became so much a part of Simone’s body of work that she titled her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You.”

Bette Midler’s rendition in Hocus Pocus has become particularly popular at Halloween owing to the movie’s rising popularity as a cult classic. This year the movie celebrates its 25th anniversary and seems to be more popular as it ages with references to it on signs, t-shirts, and more as Halloween approaches. Midler as Winifred Sanderson changes many of the lyrics to fit the spell she was casting while singing but hers is one of the more well known uses of the song, though it has appeared in several other movies and in commercials.

Jalacy Hawkins’ song had a long life after him as artists continue to cover it. However, the song and its influence on his stage persona changed his career trajectory so much that he had difficulty getting other records taken seriously and many shied away from playing his records because of fear of associating with him, even when records were more traditional. He didn’t really benefit financially from the song despite the fact that many covers of it happened in his lifetime.

The origins of a popular song that has become a Halloween Disney movie favorite? A drunken recording session, a blues singer with an amazing voice, a breakup, and a spooky production.

Read more about Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, who had an interesting life with a difficult childhood, served in the armed forces, and had a relatively successful boxing career, all before the release of “I Put a Spell on You.” Links to further reading below.

Links:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/2000-02/15/004r-021500-idx.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2000/02/13/blues-musician-screamin-jay-hawkins-70/73db046b-1556-46aa-b2c5-bb571d94c577/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f7901799d72b

These first two links are obituaries for Jay Hawkins.

https://www.biography.com/news/screamin-jay-hawkins-i-put-a-spell-on-you-biography

Biography of Jay Hawkins.

The Curious History of “I Put a Spell On You”

This is an especially interesting article that follows the trajectory of the song over time and speaks to the likelihood that Hawkins’ version was unsuccessful because of racial biases of the time, while later white performers’ versions of the song were more commercially successful and bigger hits on radio charts. It also suggests that Hawkins’ performance style confronted white audiences’ desire to appropriate black music while society still maintained segregation and oppression of African Americans.