Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Song of the Season

 “Over the River and Through the Woods” is an example of a Thanksgiving song that, in most of the verses, doesn’t mention Thanksgiving. “Jingle Bells!” is another example of a song associated with Christmas that doesn’t mention Christmas, but nonetheless is widely sung throughout the world, even though most of us haven’t been close enough to a one-horse sleigh to be bitten by the horse, except maybe in a museum.
One music historian observes that the title is an imperative telling or wishing for the bells on the horse’s harness to jingle, although “jingle bells” is also taken as the bells themselves.

Most of us are familiar with the first verse and chorus:

Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to laugh and sing
A sleighing song tonight

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh! (repeat)

The song celebrates the custom of young swains in New England in the first part of the nineteenth century to drive light, open sleighs with the fastest horse they could find. Having the fastest sleigh meant they could outdo their rivals and, not incidentally, impress the young ladies. In my day, young men vied to put the largest engine into the lightest car they could find, with much the same purpose, although they had more than one horsepower. (Sorry.)

The next verses specifically speak of impressing the ladies:

A day or two ago
I thought I'd take a ride
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we—we got upsot

“Upsot” is an antiquated English past tense for “upset,” although there was a fad at the time for humorous misspelling of words. (I’m just sayin’—we don’t find this as humorous these days.)

In the next verse, our young friend falls out of the sleigh and a rival laughs at him:

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.

The last verse is full of advice: go sleighing while you‘re young (presumably to better tolerate crashes), take the girls, sing the sleighing song and get a fast horse (“Two forty as his speed“ refers to the horse‘s time in the mile at a trot) and drive as fast as you can.

Now the ground is white
Go it while you're young,
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bobtailed bay,
Two forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you'll take the lead.

This most popular of Christmas song was written for a children’s Thanksgiving pageant at a church in Savannah, Georgia in 1857. It stands as a testament to the enduring interest of young men in young women and fast vehicles.

1 comment:

  1. Even after all this time Savannah and Medford, Massachusetts can't agree on where Pierpont wrote the song. They both have placques! http://newgrandmas.com/7675/newgrandmas/family-2/who-wrote-jingle-bells/