“Jingle Bells” that holiday classic we’ve all been singing since we were kids is actually a song about racing in the streets. This caroling favorite is more secular and Springsteen in nature than it’s solemn Christian happy birthday counterparts, and it’s theme less about Christmas and more about hot rods, horsepower and adrenaline. Listen to Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Racing In the Streets” and replace the ’69 Chevy with a “cutter” that held two people, was driven by one horse, and could trot at “two forty” (about a mile in 2 minutes, and 40 seconds) and that’s your 1800’s version of the song!
“Jingle Bells”, originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”, was written by James Lord Pierpont and published in the autumn of 1857. Pierpont was inspired by the popular sleigh races on Salem Street in Medford, Massachusetts. Sometimes planned and sometimes spontaneous these recreational events were akin to the motorized variety that would come along once, well, motors were invented and Hollywood found the glamour in it along the way.
So, what exactly are bells on bobtail rings? Well, they were the precursor to the modern car horn— “bells that lined the leather sleigh shafts” to sound a warning to oncoming horses and passersby since the snow muffled the horses’ hooves making for a silent approach.
Pierpont’s song was around for nearly a half century before becoming a big hit. Originally recorded in 1898 by the Edison Male Quartette on an Edison cylinder it became a favorite in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the quintessential Christmas-song crooner, Bing Crosby, recorded it with the Andrews Sisters in 1943 that it made the charts and sold over a million copies.
From the Million Dollar Quartet to The Muppets this jaunty tune of racing and riding has been covered in a myriad of styles and genres and interpretations. It just manages to harness the spirit of the holiday in a way more solemn songs cannot. Its for the racers in the street and the audiences that want a
piece of that exuberance.