Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

And so it was that a centuries-old folk song about a race horse launched a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas standard 40 years ago this month. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, in part inspired by “Stewball”,  was recorded by John and Yoko, the Plastic Ono Band, the Harlem Children’s Choir and produced by Phil Spector in December of 1971, though it didn’t hit the charts until the following Christmas. Sung seasonally ever since, this year as ever, the song serves as a reminder that war—its horrors and its costs—are still very much with us.

As for “Stewball”, I don’t know much about race horses, but I’ll do my best to impart the origins of the song.  The first song about him was written in the late 1700s. At that time, Stewball went by the name Skewball, though you might also see versions that tell of Sku-ball and Squball,  likely because his coat was of the skewbald variety, or what we call “pinto,” a horse with patches of color, usually on a chestnut or reddish base.

According to folk music lore and some reliable sources, Arthur Marvell’s Sku-Ball was set to race Sir Ralph Gore’s gray mare Miss Portly in Kildare, Ireland. But when the dark horse, or more accurately, the skewbald horse won, it took the horsey people by surprise:  They had expected the animal with the pedigree to take home the prize. Newsworthy as this was, the story made the broadsides: Printed on cheap paper and passed around, a popular ballad was born, beginning its journey through time and around the world.

Lyrically, there are plenty of variations on the “Skewball” story: For example, “Molly and Tenbrooks” is an American telling of a late 19th century horse race between California’s Mollie McCarty and Kentucky’s Ten Broeck. Versions of “Molly and Tenbrooks” were cut by bluegrass giants, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, but theirs are a different melody, though related by subject and genre to “Stewball” by kissin’ cousins the Greenbriar Boys. There lay the origin of the melody Joan Baez recorded. Her version is also somewhat of a conflation of the stories told in “Stewball” (who in some cases is a wine-drinking, winning race horse), and “Molly and Tenbrooks” (in which the mare stumbles and thus explains Stew’s win).

Comparing, compiling, and commenting on centuries-old ballads is a vocation to which I am not called; the work is best left to experts like Steve Roud of Croydon, London—he’s compiled the Roud Folk Song Index, listing 33 versions of Stewball and 22 versions of Skewball with data to match. He’s got the info on the John Lomax recordings of inmates of Parchman Farm singing their version in the ’30s, as well as Lead Belly’s ’40s adaptation (which begins “Way out in California…”), but again, different melody, different words, though the horse legend remains inasmuch as the “Stewball” recorded by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston concerns a race between a California and a Texas horse.

The version many of us know as “Stewball” entered the folk-rock zone in the ’60s, delivered by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary via the Greenbriars song, credited to John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Robert Yellin. For rock’n’roll folk, there could hardly be worse news than the prospect of yet another rousing verse of the song about a race horse by these buttoned-up icons of civil rights and traditional song. But by 1966, the Hollies came up with a folk-rock take on it, adding some zing with their multi-layered harmony style. Which is where we depart from the green fields of Ireland and the pastures of the Southwest and the story of Stewball moves to New York City in 1971, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono borrowed the melody and came up with their Christmas song, concerning peace on earth and life during wartime.

“‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control,” Lennon said in his final major interview. Lennon and Ono had used the “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” slogan in their billboard campaign of 1969, based on the idea that peace must be sold to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war is promoted.

John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band (whose star players for the purpose of this session were Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) and the Harlem Children’s Choir (“War is over if you want it”) recorded the song in October at the Record Plant, assisted by producer Spector. It was released in the US on December 6th and held ’til the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence on the track:  In addition to inspiration plucked from the Greenbriars’ version, as rendered by PPM and Baez, you can hear the injection of his claustrophobic effects, as heard on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, as well as the influence of another song from Lennon’s past: “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace. “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all those melodies, with notes of their somberness.

Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”), with wishes for a better world to follow. By the final uplift, all is forgiven.

There are plenty of covers of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, none of them mentionable, and some of them unmentionable (Billy Bob Thornton), though Lennon’s imaginative use of the “Stewball” melody has insured that not only the old race horse is remembered at least once a year, but that we remember each other, with love and thanks, forgiveness and faith.

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

[A version of this text was originally published Dec 8., 2009 in Crawdadddy!]

Filed under: Folk, ,

Ce N’est Pas Bon by Mariam and Amadou

Anyone who’s read Keep on Pushing, this blog, my recent columns, or if you’ve read or heard any of the Keep on Pushing interviews, you know that in addition to collecting the origins of anti-oppression songs, traditional protest songs and contemporary topical songs of peace, justice and non-violent resistance, I’ve been in search of a new freedom anthem that concerns the survival of all the people–throughout the world. In a recent column (my Crawdaddy! column, Origin of Song has been appearing once a month on the Crawdaddy! blog at Paste Magazine), I suggested that “We Shall Overcome” the anthem that was, could serve as the anthem that is, and always shall be.  But I changed my mind:  “Ce N’est Pas Bon” by Mali’s Mariam and Amadou, is clear in its vision and intent, and you barely even have to know French to understand it. Hypocrisy, demagogy, and dictatorships are not good—nous n’en voulons pas.  “Du respect pour le peuple, de l’amour pour le peuple, de la paix pour le peuple.” ” Ce N’est Pas Bon” is from Mariam and Amadou’s 2009 Nonesuch album, Welcome to Mali (which I was happy to discover was released on vinyl): C’est magnifique.

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Mali, Occupy Wall Street, , ,

On Two Giants: Belafonte and Davis

It should come as no surprise that both Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis figure prominently in the text of Keep on Pushing:  both are great American activists, with essential ties to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and the political and cultural events that shaped their times—then and now. This week I had the good fortune to hear both of them speak in person: Monday, Harry Belafonte addressed an audience in discussion with Tim Robbins, at a benefit for the Actor’s Gang, a community theater organization that also works with the prison population.  Then on Thursday evening, a talk between Angela Davis and Robin Levi was aimed at raising awareness about the prison industrial complex, specifically the California prison situation and the women in them.  Held at the UCLA/Hammer Museum, the event coincided with Now Dig This, a survey of LA African American-themed art, which is the runaway hit and must-see show of the city-wide Pacific Standard Time art exhibit.  As Davis explained, many of the visual artists on display were also “of the movement.”

Born and raised in Birmingham Alabama and educated at Brandeis University, while studying French and philosophy in Paris, Angela Davis learned of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed the four little girls with whom she’d been acquainted at home as a child.  Continuing her studies at home and abroad, she eventually returned to UCLA and Los Angeles in 1969, a time where the heat was turned up high on the Black Panthers, as well as anyone else interested in the politics of revolution; the UC Board of Regents made it difficult for her to teach peacefully.  When she was falsely accused of being an accomplice in the kidnapping and murder of Marin County Judge, Harold Haley, she served time in a California detention center.  A nationwide, grassroots campaign to liberate her contributed to her being set free after 18 months and her ultimate acquittal.  In 1972 the  Rolling Stones recorded “Sweet Black Angel” about her on their epic set, Exile on Main Street; John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band cut “Angela” on their Some Time in New York City album  (the Stones sing “keep on pushing,” while John and Yoko tell her to “keep on moving”).

In the decades since she made headlines and the FBI’s most-wanted list, Davis has continued to work as an activist, educator and author.  After teaching at one prestigious university after another, ironically, she returned to the UC system, to become a Distinguished Professor Emerita at UC Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness Department.   She also founded the prison abolition organization, Critical Resistance, “dedicated to opposing the expansion of the prison industrial complex.”

Harry Belafonte was inspired by the works of singer-actor Paul Robeson, who became a mentor.  Early in his career as an actor turned singer, he reached out to foster a cross-cultural alliance with South African artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.  On the Greenwich Village music scene, Belafonte had familiarized himself with traditional American folk songs through his work in the theater.  In 1956, he released Calypso for which he turned to his Caribbean roots; it would sell in the millions.  Choosing his roles and repertoire with precision, Belafonte was uncompromising as an artist which earned him a commanding reputation; he explained that sometimes it was difficult for his peers to metabolize his energies, though he didn’t mean for it to be this way. As it was, he was the obvious choice for Dr. King who needed his assistance organizing the entertainment communities and their financial resources for the Freedom/Civil Rights movement.  Helping to organize the March on Washington, Belafonte became not only a confidante of Dr. King’s but he helped introduce African music to wider audiences.  His relationship to South Africa and the struggle against apartheid grew deeper; he became an intimate of Nelson Mandela.  From famine relief in Ethiopia to working with the incarcerated in the USA, Belafonte’s artistic gifts landed him on the frontlines of activism, which is where he’s lived for over 50 years.

The similarities between Belafonte’s and Davis’ stories are striking, a man and woman, two different generations, one a drop-out, the other highly educated. Yet both told stories of their mothers, young country girls who had to overcome resistance, obstacles and indignities to get themselves schooled, then went on to become fierce defenders of education. Today, both Belafonte and Davis are advocates for education, especially among prisoners—the people Davis calls “the other one percent”—who need to know their basic human rights.  Education has also been proven as a solution to recidivism, and contributes to the greater good of humankind, inside and outside prison walls. Both activists also share a vocal and visible enthusiasm for the Occupy Wall Street Movement; both had visited the New York encampment, while Davis has visited and spoken at various Occupy demonstrations.  She said that on November 2, the day the Port of Oakland was shut down, she joined somewhere between 10,000—to 15,000 people on the street, some of them from her own generation, all of them cheered by the protests led by the new generation of activists.  As for President Obama, and to anyone who may be disillusioned by his performance after three years on the job, Davis offered a reminder.

“Let us not forget that moment,” she said, referring to election night, 2008, as well as the collective amnesia that afflicts American consciousness.  “It was a triumphant moment,” she said.  Reiterating that protest and pressure is an American tradition she added, “We cannot allow one of these Republicans to get elected,” she said.  While Belafonte had  a few things to say about Herman Cain…

I probably don’t need to add that Mr. Belafonte, 84, and Ms. Davis, 67, were both extraordinarily gracious while greeting their public after their formal presentations.  They took time, meeting each gaze and responding to the individual requests of handshakes and photos with them. Their love for the people, has made them much beloved by the people. The warmth generated in the rooms they occupied in LA during the blustery last week of November/first week of December  will sustain some of us through the upcoming season—the one that passes for winter around here.

Filed under: Angela Davis, Calypso, Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, Occupy Wall Street

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