Jingle all the way? Maybe not

Rochester Beacon – by Peter Lovenheim

“Jingle Bells” is one of the most performed and well-known secular holiday songs ever written, not only in the United States, but around the world. It’s the first song to have been broadcast from space—by Gemini 6 astronauts nine days before Christmas in 1965. It’s regularly been sung at the White House—most recently by President Barack Obama and his family upon lighting the National Christmas Tree in 2016. 

But “Jingle Bells” isn’t being sung anymore at Brighton’s Council Rock Primary School.

“Jingle Bells,” explained Council Rock principal Matt Tappon in an email, has been replaced with other songs that don’t have “the potential to be controversial or offensive.”

“Jingle Bells” offensive? How so?

Tappon and other staff confirmed by email that the decision to remove the song was based in part on information in a 2017 article written by professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum. Hamill’s article is a deep dive (nearly 12,000 words including appendices and footnotes) into the origin of “Jingle Bells,” the life of its composer, James L. Pierpont, and the popularity of sleigh songs in the mid-1800s. She found documents showing that the song’s first public performance may have occurred in 1857 at a Boston minstrel show. Minstrelsy was a then-popular form of entertainment in which white actors performed in blackface.

But when told that Council Rock has removed ‘Jingle Bells” based partly on her research, Hamill responded in an email: “I am actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire. … I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children.”

She continued:

My article tried to tell the story of the first performance of the song, I do not connect this to the popular Christmas tradition of singing the song now.

The very fact of (“Jingle Bells’”) popularity has to do (with) the very catchy melody of the song, and not to be only understood in terms of its origins in the minstrel tradition. … I would say it should very much be sung and enjoyed, and perhaps discussed.

Hamill, who has spoken to media and individuals nationally and internationally about her research, added that this is the first time she’s heard of a school removing the song from its repertoire.

When I shared Hamill’s response with Council Rock staff, Allison Rioux, Brighton Central School District assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, offered a different reason for removing “Jingle Bells.” She wrote:

Some suggest that the use of collars on slaves with bells to send an alert that they were running away is connected to the origin of the song Jingle Bells. While we are not taking a stance to whether that is true or not, we do feel strongly that this line of thinking is not in agreement with our district beliefs to value all cultures and experiences of our students.

“For this reason,” Rioux concluded, “along with the idea that there are hundreds of other 5 note songs, we made the decision to not teach the song directly to all students.”

A quick Google search shows that bells on horses were common as far back as Roman times. The linkage of “sleigh bells” with slave bells is not addressed in Hamill’s paper. When I asked Hamill about this, she responded:

The use of bells on enslaved peoples may be true, but there is no connection to the song that I have discovered in my research. Perhaps finding a well-referenced source for this claim might be in order if that is what (school officials) want to determine as the cause for not singing it.

In today’s world, with culture wars too often raging and school children and parents increasingly caught in the middle, it’s often difficult to determine whether a given decision is just politically correct or actually wise.

And certainly, within the scope of trying to reform the curriculum of a school district comprising four buildings, hundreds of professional and support staff, and thousands of students to be more diverse and inclusive, the removal of one song is a small matter.

But once you get that tune in your head—“Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh”—it’s hard to get it out. I got the tune in my head, so I figured—small matter or not—I might as well try to learn more about how and why the school came to remove it.

Besides, as a Brighton resident and alumnus of Council Rock, I have an affinity for the school and like to understand what’s going on there.

A sleigh song’s story

I first learned that Council Rock had dropped “Jingle Bells” from a notice posted earlier this year on the district’s public website. In a section on “Diversity and Equity,” the district chronicles its years-long anti-racist, anti-bias initiative, including the assessment of curriculum and teaching practices through a lens of being inclusive and culturally responsive.

Second-grade teachers, for example, noted their priority of making lessons “representative of our community of learners and their diverse backgrounds.” (Diversity consultants hired by the district have advised Council Rock teachers to “move away” from using gendered terms such as “Boys and Girls” and instead refer to students as “learners,” “friends,” “thinkers,” or “Council Rock Citizens.”)

In that same update, a Council Rock music teacher reported that some songs they’d been teaching were now found to have a “questionable past.” These songs are “no longer in our repertoire,” the music teacher wrote, and have been replaced by “more contemporary and relevant content.”

Some of the songs, such as “Jump Jim Joe” (original title: “Jump Jim Crow”) and “Ching a Ring Chaw” (written in supposed southern Black dialect), clearly are racist in conception or lyrics. The concern with others, such as “Cumberland Gap” (an Appalachian folk song played on banjo or fiddle) and “Jingle Bells,” is unclear.

In her article, Hamill provides some background on “Jingle Bells” composer James L. Pierpont. Born in Boston in 1822, Pierpont initially tried many ways of making a living— during the California Gold Rush he moved out West but had no luck—before settling into a career as music teacher, church organist, and songwriter. His father, an ardent abolitionist, and one older brother were both Unitarian ministers.

Pierpont wrote in many genres, including ballads, light opera, and polkas. He wrote “Jingle Bells” (originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”) at a time, notes Hamill, when sleigh songs were all the rage. She writes: “As a synonym for youth (not unlike fast cars in the twentieth century), the mania for sleigh riding made its way into popular literary, theatrical, and visual culture.” And that included the minstrel stage.

The song itself consists not only of the familiar opening verse and chorus, but three additional verses that describe, in Hamill’s words, a “youthful courtship ritual.” They describe a young couple sitting next to each other when suddenly their fast-moving sleigh overturns, landing them together in the snow.

(Of these verses, the New England Historical Society explains: “In its day, Pierpont’s tune was the equivalent of a Beach Boy’s song about fast cars, pretty girls and sneaking off to be together in private—a sleigh was one of the few places where a young couple could be alone and unsupervised.”)

Hamill hypothesizes that Pierpont “needed the work,” and therefore wrote the song and others like it to conform to the conventions of minstrel shows at that time, such as fast sleighs, bells, and young people courting and laughing. He wrote such songs, she says, “out of pure financial necessity.”

Hamill’s article makes no suggestion that Pierpont was an ideologue. He was peripatetic, his interests varying with time and place: As a young man living in the North, he served in the U.S. Navy; in midlife, having moved to Georgia to work as music director at his brother’s church and remarry, when war broke out he served briefly as clerk in a Confederate company, even writing songs for the regiment.

In researching “Jingle Bells,” Hamill noted that one of her original aims had been to resolve a long-standing dispute as to where Pierpont had composed the song: the Boston suburb of Medford, Mass., or Savannah, Ga. That issue remains unresolved and both communities continue to claim credit.

An unanswered question

The Council Rock music teachers directly involved in the decision to remove “Jingle Bells” from the school’s repertoire have retired, and Brighton assistant superintendent Rioux and Council Rock principal Tappon both declined to speak directly with me about the decision.

If they had spoken with me, I’d have liked to better understand the decision-making process about removing the song and to learn what “contemporary and relevant” songs have replaced it. I’d also have liked to speak with those in the school community—staff or families—who may have expressed concerns about the song to better understand and include their points of view.

In the end, what we seem to have is one of the world’s most popular songs that, according to one researcher, may have been written to be performed 164 years ago in a minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment demeaning to blacks. And yet the song’s lyrics, only the first verse of which is sung today, are not racist, and the author appears not to have been an ideologue.

So, here’s the question we’re left with: Is Council Rock’s decision to stop singing “Jingle Bells” a reasonable step to create a more inclusive school curriculum, or an instance of well-intentioned overreach?

It’s hard to know. What do you think?

For now, let’s end on a musical note:

One of the consulting firms hired by the Brighton Central School District to help implement its diverse and inclusive initiative is called the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. It’s part of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

In December 2019, NYU’s Steinhardt School announced it would host a Christmas Jazz Concert. Leading the All-University Jazz Orchestra would be eight-time Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria. In 2018, Sanabria was honored as a musician and educator by the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. The Christmas concert, said Sanabria, would feature young artists who represent “NYU’s commitment to cultural diversity.” The concert program, stated an NYU press release, would include Christmas classics “adapted to Afro-Latin rhythms,” among them “Winter Wonderland,” “Carol of the Bells”—and “Jingle Bells.”

Rochester Beacon

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