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Jingle Bells

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Not the "Jingle Bells" you know and love, but a festive picture for the holidays. "Jingle Bells," by Charles A. White. Boston: White, Smith & Co., 1880.

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!

Comments (8)

  1. Thanks for the neat information. The sheet music section is great. Happy Holidays to Y’all down at the AFC and a musical New Year too!!

  2. Wow! how fun! Second readings, i.e. “But upon further reading, those clamorous…” almost always deliver the best reading.

  3. Jingle Bells has been a favorite of mine since I was a child and was the first song I learned by heart and also the first song I learned in Spanish so I could join the Spanish Club in singing carols. It holds many great memories for me. Thanks for filling me in on the history of the tune. Have a wonderful Christmas and a prosperous New Year!

  4. I always heard the story of the song was that in the 1850’s the local young men in Medford Mass. would have races in their sleighs on Friday nights. This song was written about those races.The song became associated with the holiday season, but was not written about Christmas.

    Following is the story from the Medford Historical Society.

    About the Song
    “Jingle Bells,” the now world famous holiday tune, was composed at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850 by James Pierpont (1822-1893). The tavern stood at the site which is now 19 High Street in Medford Square. The song was composed in the presence of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who later verified the location of the song’s composition. In 1857, James Pierpont, while living in Georgia, copyrighted “Jingle Bells.” The lyrics of the song tell of the sleigh rides held on Salem Street in the early 1800s.
    Source: Medford Historical Society-1988

  5. Jack – thank you for the Medford Historical Society info.

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