“Bells on bobtail ring,
making spirits bright
What fun it is to laugh and sing
A sleighing song tonight.”
One of the most recognizable American melodies, “Jingle Bells” — a song that goes down in history — has been recorded thousands of times. From the Beatles to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and from Luciano Pavarotti to the Partridge Family to Pearl Jam, the song has become a classic.
“Jingle Bells” may be a melody you hum now and then, but how much do you know about the song’s history? How much do you know about the song’s rebellious composer? Did you know about the popular holiday melody’s debut with minstrels in blackface?
“Jingle Bells” was written and composed by songwriter James Lord Pierpont, who was born in 1822.
The son of a fiercely abolitionist Unitarian minister, Reverend John Pierpont, Pierpont was not much of a family man. Pierpont sought adventures far away from his family in Boston from a very early age.
A 14-year-old Pierpont ran off from boarding school and joined the crew of a whaling ship. Believe it or not, he spent nearly a decade at sea.
Pierpont left his wife and children behind in Massachusetts when the California Gold Rush struck in 1849. He returned home several years later and departed from his family again the California Gold Rush struck in 1849.
After the demise of his first wife in 1856, Pierpont married a daughter of Savannah’s mayor. He left the two children from his first marriage back in the North with their grandfather.
During the civil war, Pierpont wrote Confederate anthems including “Strike for the South,” “We Conquer, or Die!” and “Our Battle Flag!”
“Jingle Bells” wasn’t the song’s original name. The holiday ditty — first printed by a Boston music publishing house in 1857 — was released under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.” It had the more familiar title of “Jingle Bells” when it was reissued two years later.
In case you have noticed, the song has no mention of Christmas or any other holiday, although it is now a Yuletide staple. As per certain historical accounts, the tune was first performed for a Thanksgiving service at the church of either Pierpont’s father or brother.
The song may have been first performed in blackface. “One Horse Open Sleigh” — first printed in September 1857 — was then dedicated to John Ordway, a Boston doctor, composer and organizer of a troupe of white men performing in blackface called “Ordway’s Aeolians.”
“Jingle Bells” was the first song ever broadcast from space. Two astronauts aboard Gemini 6 had just completed a rendezvous with Gemini 7 nine days before Christmas in 1965. Suddenly, the crew gave a troubling report to Mission Control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a … Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one … You might just let me try to pick up that thing.”
And all of a sudden, the frightening report of the unidentified flying object was broken by the sound of “Jingle Bells”. While “Wally” Schirra played a tiny harmonica, Tom Stafford shook a handful of small sleigh bells they had brought along with them for the space voyage.
So the next time you sing your favourite Christmas carol, remember that it’s a song with no ordinary history.