The first time I read Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 poem “The Bells,” I thought it was unusually upbeat for a work by the master of the macabre. But upon further reading, those clamorous consonants, that constant clanging, the “time, time, time,” and “tinkle, tinkle, tinkle” are entirely in line with the likes of “The Telltale Heart,” published a few years earlier. Still, Poe’s “jingling and the tinkling of the bells” may have inspired a song published by James Pierpont twelve years later as “The One Horse Open Sleigh” – the song we know today as “Jingle Bells.” You can sing along to Pierpont’s original lyrics in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music in American Memory.
It may surprise you that this Christmas carol’s origins date back to before the Civil War – and it may further intrigue you that its author went on to compose a number of songs for the Confederacy. But a veritable sleigh-full of modern versions and variations pays testament to a song that has transcended time and culture, from crooner Perry Como to jazz legend Louis Armstrong to the German-produced, Caribbean-born disco group Boney M, from barking dogs to Bart Simpson. The merry melody was parodied by Swedish comedian Yogi Yorgesson (born Harry Stewart) as “Yingle Bells” and was used as the base of a Steel Worker’s Union cheer. In December 1965, “Jingle Bells” became the first song played in space .
The Music Divison’s online collections also include a forgotten tune by the name of “Jingle Bells,” composed by one Charles A. White. His version, with spoken word entreaties to horses named Emma and Darby, has not stood the passage of time, but it lives on in American Memory. The Music Division wishes you and yours a Merry Christmas however you may jingle!