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"Jingle Bells" is one of the best-known and commonly sung winter songs in the world. It was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) and published under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh" in the autumn of 1857. Even though it is commonly thought of as a Christmas song, it was actually originally written to be sung for Thanksgiving.
It is an unsettled question where and when James Lord Pierpont originally composed the song that would become known as "Jingle Bells". A plaque at 19 High Street in the center of Medford Square in Medford, Massachusetts commemorates the "birthplace" of "Jingle Bells", and claims that Pierpont wrote the song there in 1850, at what was then the Simpson Tavern. According to the Medford Historical Society, the song was inspired by the town's popular sleigh races during the 19th century.
"Jingle Bells" was originally copyrighted with the name "One Horse Open Sleigh" on September 16, 1857. It was reprinted in 1859 with the revised title of "Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh". The song has since passed into public domain.
The date of the song's copyright casts some doubt on the theory that Pierpont wrote the song in Medford, since by that date he was the organist and music director of the Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia, where his brother, Rev. John Pierpont Jr., was employed. In August of the same year, James Pierpont married the daughter of the mayor of Savannah. He stayed on in the city even after the church closed due to its Abolitionist leanings.
Music historian James Fuld notes that "the word jingle in the title and opening phrase is apparently an imperative verb." In the winter in New England in pre-automobile days, it was common to adorn horses' harnesses with straps bearing bells as a way to avoid collisions at blind intersections, since a horse-drawn sleigh in snow makes almost no noise. The rhythm of the tune mimics that of a trotting horse's bells. However, "jingle bells" is commonly taken to mean a certain kind of bell.
Although less well-known than the opening, the remaining verses depict high-speed youthful fun. In the second verse, the narrator takes a ride with a girl and loses control of the sleigh:-
In the next verse (which is often skipped), he falls out of the sleigh and a rival laughs at him:
In the last verse, after relating his experience, he gives equestrian advice to a friend to pick up some girls, find a faster horse, and take off at full speed:
The 1857 lyrics differed slightly from those we know today. It is unknown who replaced the words with those of the modern version.
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The original 1857 "Jingle Bells" had a slightly different chorus featuring a more classical-style melody. The "I V vi iii IV I V I" chord progression is a common theme in classical music; except for the final two chord changes, the melody as originally written follows the same pattern as Pachelbel's Canon, resembling the tune Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, which appeared about fifty years after "Jingle Bells".
The "Jingle Bells" tune is used in French and German songs, although the lyrics are unrelated to the English lyrics. Both celebrate winter fun. The French song, titled Vive le vent ("Long Live the Wind"), was written by Francis Blanche and contains references to Father Time, Baby New Year, and New Year's Day. There are several German versions of "Jingle Bells", including the popular Roy Black versions of Christkindl and Christmastime.
James Lord Pierpont's 1857 composition "Jingle Bells" became one of the most performed and most recognizable secular holiday songs ever written, not only in the United States, but around the world. In recognition of this achievement, James Lord Pierpont was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
"Jingle Bells" was first recorded by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898 on an Edison cylinder as part of a Christmas medley entitled "Sleigh Ride Party". In 1902, the Hayden Quartet recorded "Jingle Bells".
In 1943, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded "Jingle Bells" as Decca 23281 which reached No. 19 on the charts and sold over a million copies. In 1941, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Ernie Caceres and the Modernaires on vocals had a No. 5 hit with "Jingle Bells" on RCA Victor, as Bluebird 11353. In 1935, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra reached No. 18 on the charts with their recording of "Jingle Bells". In 1951, Les Paul had a No. 10 hit with a multi-tracked version on guitar. In 2006, Kimberley Locke had a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart with a recording of the song.
"Jingle Bells" has been performed and recorded by a wide variety of musical artists, including Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, The Chipmunks, Judy Collins, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Placido Domingo, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Spike Jones, Barry Manilow, The Million Dollar Quartet (Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley), NSync, Luciano Pavarotti, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Frank Sinatra, Fats Waller and Yello, among many others.
In 1955, Don Charles, from Copenhagen, Denmark, recorded a novelty version with dogs barking to the melody of "Jingle Bells" as RCA 6344, and a version credited simply to "St. Nick" called "Jingle Bells (Laughing All the Way)" features someone laughing, rather than singing, the entire song.
"Jingle Bells" was the first song broadcast from space, in a Christmas-themed prank by Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra. While in space on December 16, 1965, they sent this report to Mission Control: "We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit... I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit...." The astronauts then produced a smuggled harmonica and sleighbells and broadcast a rendition of "Jingle Bells." The harmonica, shown to the press upon their return, was a Hohner "Little Lady", a tiny harmonica approximately one inch long, by 3/8 of an inch wide.
Like many simple, catchy and popular melodies, "Jingle Bells" is often the subject of parody. "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" has been a well-known parody since the mid 1960s, with many variations on the lyrics. Bart Simpson sings this version on The Simpsons, the first time being on "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire". The Joker himself also sings it in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Christmas with the Joker". In addition, comedian Phil Snyder recorded a full-length version of the song, adding new verses utilising other comic superheroes. This same parody was also done in an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants with the lyrics being changed to match the context of Mermaidman and Barnacleboy.
Parodies or novelty versions of "Jingle Bells" have been recorded by many artists, and include Yogi Yorgesson's "Yingle Bells," Da Yoopers' "Rusty Chevrolet," Bucko and Champs' "Aussie Jingle Bells", The Three Stooges' "Jingle Bell Drag" and Jeff Dunham's "Jingle Bombs", performed in his "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" sketch. Another popular spoof of the song is "Pumpkin Bells", a "Pumpkin Carol" which celebrates Halloween and the "Great Pumpkin". It originated in the Peanuts series of TV specials.
"Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms pays homage to "Jingle Bells", directly referencing the source song's lyrics, but with a different melody. Originally recorded and released by Helms in a rockabilly style, "Jingle Bell Rock" has itself since become a Christmas standard.
In the Brian Setzer Orchestra version of the song, the first occurrence of "one-horse open sleigh" in the chorus is changed to "'57 Chevrolet", most likely to better suit the band's throwback rock 'n' roll/big band style.
The first notes in the chorus have also been recorded in other Christmas songs, most notably a guitar passage at the end of Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" and Clarence Clemons performing a saxophone solo in the middle of Bruce Springsteen's "Merry Christmas Baby"; a piano is also heard playing these notes at the end of Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town".
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