In December 1965, NASA Mission Control experienced a few tense moments when Gemini astronauts Wally Schirra Jr and Tom Stafford called in a report of an unidentified flying object:
“We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a … Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one …”Gemini 6 Report in December 1965
Suddenly, music broke over the transmission. Schirra and Stafford had brought along a harmonica and sleigh bells into space with them and they played “Jingle Bells” for those listening at Mission Control, making the holiday classic the first song to be broadcast from space.
Jingle Bells has been a classic for many years. Every school child knows it (and its Batman parody), and a song that was written to reference it, “Jingle Bell Rock”, became a classic in its own right.
But there is kind of a weird story behind the Christmas classic. First of all, it wasn’t originally a Christmas song at all. It is thought to have been first performed as part of a Thanksgiving worship service at a church in Georgia. And secondly, it’s apparently a song about drunken sleigh drag races. Those two statements don’t exactly line up, do they?
There are some disputes about the exact timeline and birthplace of the song, but a few facts are agreed upon by historians. The song, which was originally called, One Horse Open Sleigh, was written by a man named James Piermont. He was a bit of a rolling stone and traveled around and lived in several places. One of the places he lived was Medford, Massachusetts and during the winter time, sleigh drag racing up and down the streets was apparently a regular event. Kyna Hamill of the Medford Historical Society notes:
“Medford is home to a series of sleigh races that used to occur on a street called Salem Street, and because of this event, which pretty much happened in the middle of the 19th century, these sleigh races — which you could pretty much call drag races — down this street was one of the most popular events. Because of that, the influence and inspiration of the song, we believe came from those races. If you think about the fact that one of the great industries of Medford was rum-making, and if you really think about the lyrics of the song, with the lens that these are drag races that are happening at top speed down the center of this street, one of the suggestions is that it’s actually a drinking song.”Kyna Hamill, The Medford Historical Society
As I mentioned, there is some dispute about the birthplace of the song, and both Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia have plagues in their cities claiming to be home of the song, with each place having different narratives about the song’s past. Apparently, it’s led to quite the debate and even “strongly worded letters” between the cities’ mayors. Sometime after his days in Massachusetts, James Piermont moved to California to try his hand at being a gold prospector. But he moved back east after losing his business in California and was hired by his Reverend brother to be the music director of his church in Savannah.
This is where Georgia’s narrative picks up and the claim is that the song was composed while he was living in Georgia and working as the church’s music director and the song was performed for a Thanksgiving program.
This is honestly pretty funny because there are several verses to the song we aren’t as familiar with that talk about picking up girls, racing rivalries, and getting into sleigh crashes. The sleigh ride genre was popular at the time, much like how we have plenty of songs today about fast cars. So if a church in Georgia sometime in the 1850’s really did perform One Horse Open Sleigh for a Thanksgiving service, that’s like a church music director today saying, “Let’s all stand and sing Fun, Fun, Fun by The Beach Boys.”
It’s been interesting to read some about the history behind the song, and really the history of the song, is the history of the man who wrote it. It seems to be due to Piermont’s nomadic and rebellious nature, that it’s been difficult for historians to definitively trace the origins of the song. It appears he deserted children and families as he traveled around the country chasing one idea after another to make money. He sold many songs, chasing the profitable trends of the day, including selling songs to minstrel shows that performed in blackface. And I don’t want to skirt the fact that One Horse Open Sleigh may have been performed this way also as he was known to sell other songs to these minstrel shows and Kyna Hamill of the Medford Historical Society uncovered a playbill from a show in 1857 that listed a performance of One Horse Open Sleigh. With the dueling narrative between Massachusetts and Georgia about the exact history of the song, it seems to me that there might be bits of truth to both sides and that a man who ambitiously chased as many opportunities as Piermont appeared to do, might very well have hawked the song anywhere he could, be it a minstrel show or a church in Georgia.
One fact that is undisputable is the rise in popularity the song enjoyed many years after it was published. By 1890, the song had become a huge Christmas hit and in 1970 James Piermont was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
So often we carry on with our same traditions year after year, never stopping to consider the history behind them. But maybe next time you hear some carolers singing “Jingle Bells”, you’ll smile to yourself and think about drunken sleigh drag races and how some guy apparently got a choir of church folks to sing about them for a Thanksgiving service.