Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the poem that became the carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day in 1893.

Happy holidays to everyone, and here's to having a very Merry Christmas, too. Since there's not much going on in the live music world, nor in the virtual one either, how about a ramble on two popular Christmas songs that just happen to be favorites of mine?

I've always appreciated the song Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono for challenging the listener to think about actually doing something positive for the event celebrating the birth of Jesus and also for the interesting chordal structure that feels rewarding and surprising to me every time I play it. Here's to John for not just mouthing good cheer nonsense while filling a silly holiday song with sentimental goop, as a seasonal number by another former Beatle sounds like to me, but for going after the nitty gritty with gusto. After the commercial success of Imagine, a timeless and beautiful song that, though credited to Lennon, contains much of Ono's philosophy, John is quoted as saying, "Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey," and Happy Xmas is indeed a sweet song. Produced by the great (though extremely weird, to say the least) Phil Spector and featuring the Harlem Community Choir, it was originally put out as a 45-rpm single on green vinyl. Due to the many covers of the song since then, it's now considered a standard, still asking the listener every time it's played to do better, be better and live for and in peace.

And in case you're wondering, like I always did, why he called it Happy Xmas instead of Merry Christmas, it's reported that the British generally care to use "Happy," rather than "Merry." It's not a hard-and-fast rule, as proven by the old English carol, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, which dates back the 1800s, but from what I can tell, the phrase is much more common across the pond than here in the States.

Now my all-time, blue-ribbon special is hands down, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and not just because it's a cool yule carol, but for its compelling backstory, including a hip twist at the end that comes along with the song. The lyrics come from a powerful poem written on Christmas Day in 1863 by none other than the eminent Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Worried about losing his son in Civil War combat, the august poet composed this seven stanza poem called Christmas Bells, with the recurring phrase, "of peace on Earth, good-will to men," to take the reader from the depths of despair to a smashing victory for goodness, all told while listening to – in campanology speak – the pealing of said bells.

Music first made the words into lyrics in 1872, but for my taste, I will pass on that melody and go directly to the one initially recorded by Bing Crosby in 1956 and by many others since, including Johnny Cash, Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, the Carpenters and Casting Crowns. The uplifting and oh-so-fitting music for this version was composed by none other than Johnny Marks, the same songwriter responsible for Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, along with Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, plus A Holly Jolly Christmas, Silver and Gold and the rest of the songs from that famously camp, 1964 TV show about Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys.

How's that for a little whoop-de-do finale? See you next week for our New Year's edition of Now Playing with no one playing anywhere. I'm fairly certain we will find something to go on about anyway.

About The Author

Tom Irwin

Tom Irwin, a sixth-generation Sangamon County resident, has played his songs and music for nearly 40 years in the central Illinois area with occasional forays across the country. He's contributed to Illinois Times since 2000 by writing Now Playing, a weekly music column, as well as features stories and other articles...

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