The problem with big cultural touchstones is that people usually don’t recognize that they’re a “BIG CULTURAL TOUCHSTONE” until after they’ve had a chance to percolate through popular culture for a couple of decades. By then the origination date and place might be a little hazy. Authorship might be disputed. It might be that everything was in place to create the thing and several different people created it close together or that there was a disagreement about what constituted the beginnings of something. Finally by then there is fame and maybe fortune from tourism to be made and people may be tempted to make a claim with very little evidence.
Christmas is not without this kind of controversy. A few years ago I shared what I learned when I hunted the meaning for an enigmatic phrase in a copy of The Night Before Christmas. Today “Jingle Bells“ has fallen into my lap.
There is certainly no dispute about the importance of “Jingle Bells” in the American culture. It was recorded as early as 1898 and was the first song played in space by astronauts as part of a holiday prank in 1965.
The “Jingle Bell Wars” is more straight forward than some of these disputes. The writer of the song isn’t disputed – James Pierpont – it’s the when and the where. Apparently he spent several years going back and forth between Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia. He finally settled in Georgia and despite the fact his father was a strong Abolitionist he fought for the Confederates.
Medford thinks they have it narrowed down to the particular spot – that used to be a tavern where sleigh races were held nearby – and have a historic marker there.
Savannah lays claim to being where it was written and if not where it was copyrighted and he lived there and was buried there, so there! Their historic marker is set on the church where Pierpont served as organist .
Kyna Hamill got tired of having the same answers every year when people started calling the Medford Historical Society for more information for a seasonal story. Hamill, who also teaches at CFA School of Theatre, started digging into the history of the song and trying to find out more about its writing.
What she found was a disagreement over the location of the writing and fact checking a lot of material found in a 1946 Boston Globe article that is the main source for the history of the song, she found things didn’t add up. It definitely couldn’t have been written in Medford in 1850 as the story went because Pierpont was in the California gold rush in 1850. Hamill has discovered a playbill from a minstrel show that may well be “Jingle Bells” first public performance. It was held at John Ordway’s Ordway Hall, on Washington Street in Boston, on September 15, 1857.
While being part of a minstrel show isn’t the idyllic first performance for the song – which Savannah claims was at an undocumented church service – that people want to associate with a cherished Christmas song. However, a large percent of 19th century popular music does come from that tradition. Although black face is rightly seen as offensive today, ignoring songs from that tradition would mean ignoring some great American songs including most of Stephen Foster’s work. (If you don’t know who Stephen Foster is, look him up, I’ll wait.) So it’s not something that would have even occurred to people being a problem.
Evidence? Why Do You Need Evidence?
Neither side in the “Jingle Bell Wars” are willing to give up despite this contrary evidence. Catch their reactions in the Boston Globe.
As the Victrola Turns aka the Death of Story Songs
What I think is a little humorous about this is that none of these articles mentioned the important example “Jingle Bells” serves as the capture of American music by technology. A musician I once heard – and I wish I could remember his name so I could give due credit – pointed out that this was one of the most obvious examples of the shortening of American music.
In the 19th century songs were passed around via sheet music. You’d go to the store browse or ask for suggestions to buy sheet music and then go home and play it. Sort of like how you go to iTunes to download a new song today. Songs often told a story (think of the later song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”) or collected new verses as it got passed around (think “Old Dan Tucker”). However, the new record technology was inflexible in its length – roughly 3 minutes – and that meant that songs were shortened and verses thrown away. The rule of the length of a song – roughly 3 minutes – has passed down to this day despite changes in technology.
The shortened length killed many story songs and shortened even popular and well known songs. “Jingle Bells” is a great example of this. Take a minute and sing it to yourself. How far did you get? Do you think it ends with “then we got opsot” followed by one more chorus? You just skipped two verses that old record technology cut out. See for yourself the sheet music from the Library of Congress. Or see a transcript (I’m not 100% on the correctness of this one, but it definitely gives you the idea).
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.