Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jingle Bells

Many of us grew up singing "Jingle Bells" every December. Where did the song come from? Do we know who wrote it or is it an anonymous "public domain" song? Here are a few little-known facts about this famous tune:

  • Written in the 1850’s by James Pierpont, who was the uncle of J. P. Morgan, the famous banker. J. P. Morgan's full name is James Pierpont Morgan.

  • Originally titled “One-Horse Open Sleigh

  • Earliest known recording: 1898 by the Edison Male Quartette

  • Never mentions the word Christmas or anything, other than winter activities, that is related to Christmas.

  • The melody to the chorus as originally published sounded more classical than the commonly accepted melody today. It is not known when the melody was changed or who made the changes.

Different stories circulate regarding the origin of Jingle Bells. Many sources claim this song was originally written for children to sing in a Thanksgiving church service. According to these sources, the song was so popular, the children also sang it for the Christmas service. However, the song never mentions anything sacred. Instead the lyrics focus on riding in a sleigh and courting girls, which seems inappropriate for children to sing for a church program in the 19th century. More likely is the claim that the song was written about young men racing “cutters” (one-horse open sleighs). James Pierpont was a minister’s son and had served as organist and music director of a church, but none of his other known songs were religious songs.

Also up for debate is when and where the song was actually written. Some claim as early as 1851 in Boston. Others claim the song was written in Savannah, Georgia, a place that probably did not have enough snow for sleigh riding. The song was first published in 1857 in Boston, but Pierpont, who had previously lived in Boston, was living in Savannah at the time. Perhaps the song was originally written in Boston in the early 1850's when Pierpont was living there and was later introduced (possibly only the chorus and first verse) at a church in Savannah.

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