Christmas Songs: “Happy Xmas, War Is Over (If You Want It),” John Lennon, Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band, and The Harlem Community Choir
These are original still photos and filmed portions of the recording with John, Yoko, and the children of Harlem, which was produced by Mr. Wall of Sound himself in October 1971. Interspersed are stills and videos of the Lennons’ home life before and after Sean was born.
The record starts with a barely-audible whisper of Christmas greetings to their children: Yoko whispers “Happy Christmas, Kyoko,” then John whispers “Happy Christmas, Julian.” The lyric sheet from the 1982 release The John Lennon Collection erroneously gives this introduction as “Happy Christmas, Yoko. Happy Christmas, John.”
It was recorded at Record Plant Studios in New York City in late October 1971, with the help of producer Phil Spector. It features heavily echoed vocals, and a sing-along chorus. The children singing in the background were from the Harlem Community Choir and are credited on the song’s single. The lyrics were written by Lennon and Ono, and the melody and chord structure quote the folk standard known as “Stewball.” However, Lennon deviates harmonically in crucial ways from the original tune at the beginning of each major section, modulating through secondary keys before arriving back at the main key. This results in a more expansive harmonic progression, while it also lifts the melody higher each time, ultimately into the soprano range where it is passed upward to Yoko Ono and the children’s chorus. The striking sense of forward movement and magnification with each modulation and registral change, neither of which is present in the original folk tune, is a key part of the song’s expressive appeal. The single was released in the US in December of 1971, but the UK release was delayed until the following November due to a publishing dispute. The song was re-released in the UK on December 20, 1980, shortly after John Lennon‘s assassination on December 8, peaking at #2.
Both John and Yoko were without their children at the time, and possibly, both were missing them or feeling guilty about them. Julian was with John’s ex-wife Cynthia. Only when John lived with May Pang, the girlfriend of his lost L.A. weekend, did Julian reenter John’s life at Pang’s insistence. Those reunions could not have been easy, as John was fighting his demons as well as his alcoholism. For Yoko, a rather fierce child custody battle ensued after she divorced the jazz musician Anthony Cox, who had previously reared their daughter Kyoko. However, when the court awarded custody to Yoko, Cox kidnapped Kyoko, in an early example of parental child abduction. One of the reasons why John and Yoko came to the United States was to search for her child. Kyoko Cox reunited with her mother in 1994 after she married and was contemplating having children of her own.
All of this was yet miles into the future. And once, we were all young and heedless about the passage of time. So while John and Yoko were envisioning peace between peoples, and no war (then, the Vietnam War was still raging) at a spiritual time of year, they may have seen their children through these youngsters. And as I look at these photos and the footage of the choir–with the boys whose voices have not yet broken, and the girls who look shyly or attentively into the camera–I realize that they are now adults, and may have their own children and grandchildren. Some may be in prison, and some may be dead from war, or from the crack wars that raged on the streets in the 1980s after John was killed. Some may have contracted the HIV virus. And some may have completely escaped all that, simply because that particular day was magical.
I have Google searched the Harlem Community Choir, and it may have ceased to exist or it may exist under another name. After all, it was not like the Edwin Hawkins Singers or even the Boys Choir of Harlem, which only shut its doors last year.
And who were the two black women who led them? Are they here or gone?
I wonder what they do remember from that day.
If anything, some of these children probably knew, but others could not fathom or care that this pair–a long-haired white man just under six feet tall with a funny way of talking and his tiny Japanese companion–were famous.
That this man, this exile, had been once been part of the most famous musical group in the world, and one-half of one of the best songwriting teams in the world, was spending time with them to do as he had always done: make music and make a record.
I wonder what memories they took from that day to keep for their families and their own children.
I wonder how many forgot and just thought it was another day, that it was nothing big, and really they didn’t like The Beatles. Or how they smelled. Perhaps they missed having their lunch on time. And that the union scale could probably keep them going for another month at the very least.