Check This Out: “Jingle Bells”

JINGLE BELLS (SONG)

JAMES LORD PIERPONT  (1857)

The only known portrait of James Lord Pierpont is in the Public Domain.

James Lord Pierpont (1822 – 1893) was born in Boston and wrote a song he called “One-Horse Open Sleigh” when he was 35. The song as Pierpont wrote it was not a “hit” nor was it a remarkable composition; it featured a simple melody and lyrics that were not unlike the many other songs of the time that celebrated outdoor sports. Pierpont, you see, was broke and wrote the song strictly for financial reasons. Funny that James should be so bad with money; he was the uncle of one James Pierpont Morgan – the same J.P. Morgan who would go on to be a dominant financier and banker who “helped transform the shape of the American economy” in the late 1800’s. In 1857, Pierpont also published “Gentle Nettie Moore”, a song that has been interpreted by Bob Dylan and the Sons of the Pioneers. That same year, Pierpont would add his name to history with his ditty about a ride in a sleigh.

For years, the people of Medford, Mass. have claimed that Pierpont wrote the song in their town but this has been recently debunked. Seems it was written in Savannah, Georgia; there are plaques commemorating the writing of the song in both cities. The song was copyrighted on September 16, 1857 and that same day it was first performed publicly at Ordway Hall in Boston by blackface minstrel Johnny Pell. It was re-copyrighted as “Jingle Bells” in 1859 but at this point it was still not tied specifically to Christmastime celebrations. By the 1880’s, it had become a favourite “parlor song” and was often heard on college campuses. By 1898 when the Edison Male Quartette recorded it on an Edison cylinder, it began to become a Christmas standard.

The playbill from Orway Hall from the very first night “Jingle Bells” was performed publicly. Courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library.

Certainly “Jingle Bells” is the most “quoted” song in history. Scores of Christmas songs incorporate pieces of its melody; it’s true that the few notes that make up the title of the song – “Jin-gle bells, jin-gle bells…” – suggest Christmas to many people. The origin of this article, actually, is a list I began keeping years ago of all the songs in which I heard snatches of “Jingle Bells”. Here are only a few:

  • “I Believe” – Frank Sinatra (a non-Christmas song)
  • “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – Bing Crosby
  • “Blue Christmas” – Frankie Avalon
  • “Christmas Ain’t Christmas New Year’s Ain’t New Year’s Without the One You Love” – the O’Jays
  • “Louisiana Christmas Day” – Aaron Neville
  • “Christmas in My Home Town” – Charley Pride
  • “Christmas in Dixie” – Alabama
  • Frank Sinatra’s second recording of “The Christmas Waltz” and his second recording of “White Christmas”
  • “It’s Christmas Time” – the 5 Keys
  • “O Christmas Tree” – Russell Malone
  • “Silver Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town/Here Comes Santa Claus” both by Liberace
  • “Can’t Wait Till Christmas” – jacksoul
  • “It Snowed” – Tim Rosenau
  • “Sleigh Ride” – Henry Mancini
  • “Lonesome Christmas” – Little Milton
  • “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Robert Goulet
  • “River” – Joni Mitchell
  • “Christmas Time in the Country” – Kenny Neal
  • “I’m Your Santa” – Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials

It can also be heard in many versions of “The Christmas Song” including those by:

  • Ray Charles
  • Al Green
  • Nat ‘King’ Cole
  • Al Caiola/Riz Ortolani
  • Perry Como
  • Connie Francis
  • Jack Jones
  • Stevie Wonder

Many versions of “White Christmas”:

  • The Drifters
  • The 4 Seasons
  • Charlie Parker
  • Elvis Presley
  • The Four Aces
  • The Ravens

And many versions of “Merry Christmas, Baby”:

  • B.B. King
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Colin James & the Little Big Band

Most performers pretty much play “Jingle Bells” straight but some have put twists on this classic. Kay Thompson was a mentor to Andy Williams and when he began his solo career she furnished him with “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells”. It’s an energetic version of the tune to which Kay added lyrics. For her first Christmas record in 1967, Barbra Streisand recorded a sped-up version with a slightly different melody (co-adapted by Marty Paich) and cleverly titled it “Jingle Bells?”. Barry Manilow borrowed this arrangement for a medley of “Carol of the Bells/Jingle Bells” on his third Christmas record In the Swing of Christmas (2007). But the talented Manilow took it a step further. He sings the song straight, then breaks into Barbra’s frantic version before mellowing out with Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement from Frank Sinatra’s Christmas record of 1957, A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra: “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells”. It’s nice. Points for Manilow.

Jack Jones recorded a great Christmas record in ’64 but later on, with RCA, he issued a second Christmas album that featured an excellent, slowed-down version of “Jingle Bells”. Jack gives it a great, bluesy treatment and comes as close as he ever did to Lou Rawls. Jackie Gleason released Merry Christmas, an album of Christmas songs in his romantic style, in 1957. The “Jingle Bells” in this setting barely moves and comes off sounding a little too much like a novelty. Bing Crosby swung like a mother on his seminal recording of this tune with the Andrews Sisters in 1943. It’s one of the hottest platters of the whole swing era, never mind Christmas music.

I love Peggy Lee. I love Billy May. I love Christmas music. But when these things came together on Peg’s Christmas Carousel record of 1960, the results are…not good. OK, I get it; the record’s for kids. The lead-off track is titled “I Like a Sleighride (Jingle Bells)” and features a mid-tempo arrangement with a children’s choir chiming in with “I like a sleighride…” Even worse than this is “Jungle Bells”. This take on the tune tells of Christmas in the jungle; “Christmas presents come to everybody everywhere. Even jungle animals are sure to get their share. Jungle bells, jungle bells, dingo-dongo day…” Like, really? The 4 Seasons drag through it on their Christmas record and Les Paul & Mary Ford offered it as a single in 1953.

Added to all this, even John MacLane whistles “Jingle Bells” just as his Christmas Eve is about to get serious in Die Hard. The song was also the first to be broadcast from space when, in 1965, Mission Control picked up the crew of Gemini 6 playing the song on a smuggled harmonica and sleigh bells. As we’ve seen, then, perhaps only “Happy Birthday to You” is known and sung more than the venerable “Jingle Bells”.

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