Saturday, September 15, 2007

On This Day in Music (1857): “Jingle Bells” first performed in public

Jingle Bells

John S. Pierpont (words and music)

Writer(s): John S. Pierpont (see lyrics here)

Published: 1857

First Performed: September 15, 1857

First Charted: October 26, 1935 (Benny Goodman)

Peak (different versions): 5 PM, 15 GA, 40 HR, 11 AC, 49 CW, 5 UK (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 0.5 US, 6.0 world (Bing Crosby)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 655.67 video, -- streaming

Awards (Pierpont):

Click on award for more details.

Awards (Crosby):

About the Song:

“Jingle Bells” isn’t just a holiday favorite, but “one of the most recognizable songs in the English language.” VU “The repetition and tempo make it appealing to kids, it’s easy to remember…it’s easy to parody.” VU It was the first song to be broadcast from space on December 16, 1965, when Gemini 6 astronauts Wally Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford playfully teased ground control that they saw a UFO being piloted by somewhere wearing a red suit. They then played “Jingle Bells” on harmonica, backed by miniature sleigh bells. CNN

The now-perennial holiday classic originally had no relation to Christmas (there’s no mention of the holiday in the lyrics), only being associated with the holiday in the 1860s and ‘70s. VU It was written by composer James Lord Pierpont and published in 1857. There is some controversy as to where the song originated, but Professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum, says it is most likely he wrote it in the summer of 1857 while living temporarily in a rooming house in downtown Boston. HC

Pierpont was born in Boston in 1822 and ran away from boarding school at age 14 to join the crew of a whaling ship, spending almost ten years at sea. HC He was “a controversial, disreputable figure” UD who left his wife and kids in 1849 to move to California during the Gold Rush. HC After striking out, he returned to a career as a music teacher, church organist, and songwriter RB writing in many genres including “ballads, light opera, and polkas.” RB He left his family again in 1853 to go to Savannah, Georgia, to be the organist at a church where his brother was the pastor. HC When his first wife died in 1856, he left his two children with their grandfather and returned to Savannah where he married the daughter of the mayor HC and had several more children. He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, writing songs in support of the soldiers fighting to defend slavery. UD He died in 1893 without making any significant money from “Jingle Bells.” UD He was, however, inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

The song was originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh” and was “a slightly racy romance song about an unchaperoned ride.” UD It was written at a time when sleigh songs were all the rage. Hamill wrote an article in 2017 saying that such songs were a synonym for youth much like fast cars are today; sleighs were a place young people could sneak off together in private. RB The song consisted not just of the familiar opening verse and chorus typically sung today, but three more verses about a youthful courtship ritual in which a young couple are in a fast-moving sleigh which overturns and lands them in the snow. RB The “jingle bells” on the horses’ harnesses were used to alter other riders to their presence to avoid collisions. TD

Pierpont wrote it to conform to the conventions of minstrel shows of the time in hopes of having financial success with it. RB A playbill from the Ordway minstrel hall in Boston suggests “One Horse Open Sleigh” was first publicly performed on September 15, 1857 by Johnny Pell in blackface. Minstrel shows were a “racist form of entertainment demeaning to blacks” RB but the lyrics themselves were not racist. RB Historian Christopher Klein asserts that the song was first performed at a Thanksgiving church service. CNN

The first recording of “Jingle Bells” appears to be an instrumental recording made on an Edison wax cylinder in 1889 by a banjo player named Will Lyle. TD That would give it the distinction of being the first Christmas song ever recorded, but all of Lyle’s versions have long been lost. TD There is, however, a surviving recording on wax cylinder in 1898 in which the vocal harmony group the Edison Male Quartett recorded it as part of a Christmas medley titled “Sleigh Ride Party.” TD

There have been chart versions of the song by Benny Goodman (#18 PM, 1935), Glenn Miller (#5 PM, 1941), Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (#19 PM, 1943), Primo Scala (#24 PM, 1949), Les Paul (#10 PM, 1952), PM and Perry Como (#74 BB, 1957). It has also been recorded by Louis Armstrong, the Barenaked Ladies, Count Basie, The Beatles, Andrea Bocelli and the Muppets, Booker T. & the MG’s, Dave Brubeck, Michael Bublé, Jimmy Buffett, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Green, Etta James, Peggy Lee, Brad Paisley, Smokey Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Gwen Stefani, George Strait, Barbra Streisand, and James Taylor.


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First posted 8/29/2023; last updated 12/20/2023.

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