Our song for this week is “Jingle Bells”. “Jingle Bells” is one of the best-known and commonly sung American Christmas songs in the world. It was written over one hundred and fifty years ago by James Lord Pierpont, an American from the state of Massachusetts in New England.
James Lord Pierpont
Most people can sing the chorus from a very young age. And many people are familiar with the first verse that we sang. But did you know that there are other verses to Jingle Bells? All the verses together tell a story about how people used to have fun in wintertime.
Today people can ride bobsleds or snowmobiles. But back in the old days, people rode in sleighs drawn by a horse or a team of horses, depending on how big the sleigh was.
Verse 1 Dashing through the snow In a one-horse open sleigh, O'er the fields we go Laughing all the way. Bells on bob tail ring, Making spirits bright, What fun it is to ride and sing A sleighing song tonight.
Over the years people have wondered about the phrase “bells on bobtail ring”. In the winter, before they had automobiles, it was common to adorn horses’ harnesses with bells as a way to avoid a collision at a blind intersection, since a horse-drawn sleigh in snow makes almost no noise. The rhythm of the tune mimics that of a trotting horse’s bells.
A "bobbed" tail
Some folks think ‘bobtail’ was the name of the horse, but it wasn’t. A ‘bobbed’ tail was a tail cut short or gathered up and tied into a knot, sort of like a bun. It kept the tail from getting tangled in the reins or whacking the sleigh driver in the face. This is sometimes seen today in special horse shows. Tomorrow we’ll learn what the second verse of the song is about.
CLICK BELOW to hear "Jingle Bells" with lyrics.
Listening Example: Barry Manilow and Expose
James Pierpont’s song was written in 1850 and published in 1857 under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh”. Even though it is associated with the Christmas and holiday season, it was originally written for Thanksgiving.
The Medford Races
“One Horse Open Sleigh” was inspired by the annual sleigh races around the town square in Medford, Massachusetts where Pierpont lived. One of his friends described the song as a “merry little jingle” and the title was changed in 1859 to “Jingle Bells”.
Verse 2 A day or two ago, I thought I'd take a ride, And soon, Miss Fanny Bright Was seated at my side. The horse was lank and lean, Misfortune was his lot. He got into a drifted bank And then we got upsot.
The second and third verses depict high-speed, youthful fun. The narrator takes a ride with a girl and loses control of the sleigh when the horse runs into a snowdrift. The words “the horse was lean and lank” mean the horse was sort of skinny. “And then we got upsot” is an old way of saying the sleigh was upset, or turned over.
There have been many recorded versions of “Jingle Bells”. The one we’re to hear today is a jazzy version by Barry Manilow and Expose. The female singers are in the style of the Andrew Sisters of the 1940’s swing era.
CLICK BELOW to hear a jazzy version by Barry Manilow and Expose.
Listening Example: Rock Version of "Jingle Bells"
Verse 3 A day or two ago The story I must tell I went out on the snow And on my back I fell; A gent was riding by In a one-horse open sleigh He laughed as there I sprawling lie But quickly drove away.
“Jingle Bells” contains what is called ‘archaic’ language. This means it has words and phrases used a long time ago but not in today’s world. People constructed sentences differently in the 1850’s. They sound like the way old poetry was written, with words out of order. For example, in the third verse we sang, “the story I must tell”, and “on my back I fell”. Think how you would rephrase those sentences in today’s language. The phrase, “he laughed as there I sprawling lie” would be said, “he laughed as I lay sprawled in the snow”.
Some of the earliest recorded versions of “Jingle Bells” were on music boxes and other mechanical music devices. The song was first recorded by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898 on an Edison cylinder, one of the earliest versions of a phonograph. The song started to become popular with the spread of phonograph records and later on radio, which allowed it to be heard by a nationwide audience.
In 1935, the Benny Goodman Orchestra recorded it. In 1941, orchestra leader Glenn Miller had a No. 5 hit with his swing style “Jingle Bells”. In 1943, the recording by pop singer and actor Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters sold over a million copies. And in 1951, Les Paul, the famous Gibson guitar maker, made a multi-track version on guitar. Today we’ll hear a rock version of “Jingle Bells”.
Benny Goodman and his orchestra
The Glenn Miller Orchestra
Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters ("Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy")
Les Paul, maker of Gibson guitars
CLICK BELOW to watch the Glenn Miller 1941 version of "Jingle Bells".
CLICK BELOW to listen to pop singer Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters in the 1943 version that became the most popular.
CLICK BELOW to hear Les Paul's 1951 guitar version of "Jingle Bells".
Listening Example: "17 Versions of Jingle Bells" by Tony DeSare
Today we sang the fourth and last verse of “Jingle Bells”. In the lyrics, the narrator suggests to have fun while you’re young. The words “get a bob-tailed bay” refer to a bay horse having dark, reddish-brown hair with a dark mane and tail.
Verse 4 Now the ground is white Go it while your young, Take the girls tonight And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bob tailed bay, Two-forty as his speed, Hitch him to an open sleigh And crack! You'll take the lead!
Horses used for racing vehicles are American Standardbred horses. They have great stamina and usually trot rather than run. The songs says “two-forty for his speed”. This means the horse can trot one mile in two minutes and forty seconds, averaging about 22.5 miles per hour. That’s a pretty good trotting speed for a horse.
“Jingle Bells” has been recorded by many artists, including The Beatles, The Chipmunks, Elvis, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, dogs barking, and ‘Talking Tom’. But did you know that “Jingle Bells” was the first song broadcast from outer space? It was a Christmas prank played by astronauts on the Gemini VI spaceship. On December 16, 1965, Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra sent this report to mission control center:
“Gemini VII, this is Gemini VI. We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He's in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a ... Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon.”
The astronauts then produced a harmonica and sleigh bells they had smuggled on board the spaceship and broadcast their rendition of “Jingle Bells”. When they returned to earth, they showed the harmonica, a Hohner “Little Lady”, a tiny harmonica about one inch long and 3/8 of an inch wide.
CLICK BELOW to hear today's listening example.
Listening Examples: Singing Dogs and Talking Tom
Just before “Jingle Bells” was published, James Pierpont moved from Medford, Massachusetts to Savannah, Georgia where his brother worked as a church pastor. James taught piano, organ and singing lessons, and wrote popular tunes. After his first wife died, he married again. His second wife, Eliza Jane, was the daughter of the mayor of Savannah.
After Pierpont’s death, the “battle of the bells” began. Both Massachusetts and Georgia claim ownership of “Jingle Bells”. Many stories have been told about its origin with reasons why it might have been written either in Medford or in Savannah. Folks in Massachusetts say he wrote it as a result of winter sleighing activity. Folks in Georgia say he wrote it because he was homesick for the northern climate. Both cities have plaques stating that their town is the “home of Jingle Bells”.
“Jingle Bells” was not an instant hit song. It took many years before it became so popular. Pierpont probably would have been surprised if he had known that his little song would be recorded by many famous artists over the world and transmitted to earth from outer space. “Jingle Bells” presents the idea of winter fun and American nostalgia. But keep in mind that riding in an open sleigh during a New England winter could be compared to driving a four-wheeler or a convertible with the top down in the middle of winter. Cold, windy and covered in snow!
Today we’re going to hear two short versions of “Jingle Bells”. The first is barking dogs. In the 1950’s, sound engineer Carl Weismann from Denmark recorded five dogs barking. He then arranged the pitches of their barks into a number of songs. This version of “Jingle Bells” was a big hit.
This version is Talking Tom singing “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells”. Talking Tom is a virtual cat game for mobile devices. What you say to him, or sing to him, he will repeat in a high-pitched voice.