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Arts & Life

The 'Jingle Bells' Song Has Roots In Minstrelsy


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.


For years a controversy has raged over where the song "Jingle Bells" was first written. It was either Medford, Mass. or Savannah, Ga.


SINATRA: (Singing) Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.

CHANG: One researcher started investigating, but then stumbled upon something far more interesting. Kyna Hamill is a senior lecturer at Boston University and she joins us from member station WBUR are in Boston. Welcome, Kyna.


CHANG: So what I really want to get into is not so much where the song was first written, but where it was first performed. You've done some digging. Where was it first performed?

HAMILL: Well, it turns out that the earliest performance I could find is in a blackface minstrel hall in Boston, a hall called Ordway Hall which was situated in the old Province House on Washington Street in September, 1857.

CHANG: Describe the scene in the minstrel show that this song, "Jingle Bells," might have been performed.

HAMILL: The minstrel performances traditionally had different parts to them. At Ordway Hall, which was a very middle class entertainment type of a theater, would have instrumental music. And then they would include a section called the Dandy Darkies (ph), where they would have white men in blackface perform pretty standard songs. And "Jingle Bells," - or as it was known in 1857, "The One Horse Open Sleigh" - was performed by someone named Johnny Pell.

CHANG: And he was a fairly well-known minstrel actor at the time?

HAMILL: He would have been in Boston. He performed in New York and came to Ordway Hall in 1854 and was highly billed through 1857.

CHANG: Are there lyrics still in the song that are questionable that we still sing, but maybe not know the double meaning behind?

HAMILL: There are some remnants of the blackface performance. So for example, the laughing all your way, oh, what sport it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight, and then the chorus where we laugh.

CHANG: Yeah.

HAMILL: Johnny Pell was known to perform a song called "The Laughing Darkie" and this was a song that stereotyped a very particular kind of racialized performance - burlesque performance of what Northern blackface performance thought Southern men would have been like. So when he sings anything that has to do with laughing, there's usually something a little bit loaded about that particular line.

CHANG: Do you think any of the lyrics have been changed over time to avoid being offensive?

HAMILL: Whether they've been changed, I'm not sure because I'm not sure that in the 20th century it's really been recognized as a blackface minstrel song. It was known to have been in that tradition at least in 1898 when the Edison Quartet performed it. But once we get into the 20th century, it's put into anthologies - college glee anthologies and Christmas anthologies. And I think that legacy of the blackface tradition had fallen away.

CHANG: OK. So I have to ask you this question, did you ever resolve the big mystery? Which one is it, Savannah, Ga. or Medford, Mass., where was "Jingle Bells" first written?

HAMILL: I just stopped asking that question because I think that it can sometimes lead us to a dead end. You know, I was listening to the story about the Christmas tree origin of is it Latvia or Estonia, and I think we have to just start asking different questions or we'll never know which side it is.

CHANG: Kyna Hamill is a senior lecturer at Boston University. Thank you so much.

HAMILL: Thank you so much, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.