Not needing to shovel a lot of snow so far in this quasi-winter of few flakes and fewer sleigh rides, I find myself motivated to end this disheartening year with just one more of my musical musings. So, gentle readers, bear with me as I retreat from my favored songs of relative obscurity to one of the best-known and most commonly sung American songs in the world—“Jingle Bells.”
Our song, found in the back of our Yellow Book, was written by one James Lord Pierpont—an impecunious son of a fiery abolitionist preacher from Medford, Massachusetts. Written a couple of years earlier, it was officially published in 1857 with the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.” This was after Pierpont had moved from New England to Georgia to seek his fortune in the South.
Musical historians have noted that the song was probably cobbled together from a variety of sources and that it was originally intended to be sung by his father’s Sunday School choir for Thanksgiving. Or, as a more likely story, it was written as a slightly ribald minstrel song. It all depends on which historian or folklorist is telling the story. So what else is new in history?
Anyway, the song is said to have been inspired by popular 19th century sleigh races in Medford where, in those days, long strands of small brass or iron bells were strapped to horses as a public safety measure.
A horse pulling a sleigh was almost noiseless and the jingle-jangle sound of the bells gave fair warning to those who might be in the way—a quaint safety measure of the day.
By the late 1800s, “Jingle Bells” had become an integral part of the Christmas musical genre. It was first recorded in 1889 on an Edison cylinder as part of a Christmas medley titled “Sleigh Ride Party,” considered to be Americas first Christmas “album!” Needless to say, it was a trend setter of sorts both dubious and not.
Now here’s where musical history takes a bit of a jog as well as a jingle. In 1857, well after the Sunday School performance, the ever cash-strapped Pierpont copywrited “Jingle Bells” and sent it to print.
It was his intention to generate some much-needed cash royalties from stage performances, particularly in cities with more lively musical reputations than Medford. Accordingly, it was quickly taken up and first performed on the stage in Boston by a popular white blackface minstrel performer, one Johnny Pell.
It soon became a popular, money-making standard on the minstrel circuit and Pierpont wrote and published several more polkas and songs that became standards on the minstrel circuit of the day–and relatively forgotten today.
As a so-called story song, “Jingle Bells” tells of a dashing young man-about-town who took his sweetheart sleighing and, in what must have been a moment of inattention to horse and road (wink-wink), upset them both into the snow—a somewhat disguised but rather suggestive narrative at the time.
The theme was thought humorous as it was well understood that an evening sleigh ride just might give an unescorted couple a rare opportunity to be together—unchaperoned (oh my!) in distant woods or fields and far from prying eyes. Is our tune tainted because of its brush with blackface minstrelsy, or 19th century lovers’ shenanigans? I can’t think so—certainly not by today’s pop music standards!
Moving on . . . Over the past hundred and seventy-plus years, “Jingle Bells” has been performed by everyone from that original Sunday School group to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It’s also been recorded by every big and not so big name in the music business from country to classical. But, it’s just too good and sing-able a song not to live on, even if it jingle-jangles on a bit too often in too many shopping venues at this time of year.
So, for a retreat from modern times, click or tap on the next image or link to listen to a modern (not a scratchy 19th century cylinder) rendition of Pierpont’s original lyrics and melody of “The One-Horse Open Sleigh.”
Next, even though we ukulele strummers are known to say that “more than four strings is just showing off,” I am compelled to include one of my favorite multi-multi-string versions of “Jingle Bells.” Click or tap on the next image or link to hear the late Earl Scruggs and friends attack our song in bluegrass style!
And, where would we be without a ukulele version? Click or tap on the next image or link to hear The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have a rather bizarre go at this one!
So, keep your non-plastic ukuleles out of the snow (if and when) . . .
and stay well, and stay masked . . .
and STAY TUNED as we sleigh away from a less than perfect 2021 and dance into a more than perfect (please!) 2022!