Everybody knows that Jingle Bells is a Christmas song, right? Actually, it is believed that the 1857 song was written to be sung at Thanksgiving, or possibly as a drinking song. Either way, the song was originally titled The One Horse Open Sleigh and was written in the style of sleigh-riding songs, which were popular at the time.
Jingle Bells’ association with Christmas dates back at least as far as the earliest surviving recording of the song, where The Edison Male Quartet included it in a Christmas medley which was released as an Edison cylinder in 1898. Since then, the song has become a Christmas staple. Here is a novel take on Jingle Bells by the United States Navy Band.
Country music fans will have noted that this sprightly, countrified version of Jingle Bells is performed in the style of Duelling Banjos, by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. The most known recording of this song is the one on the Deliverance soundtrack, which adapted the song to an acoustic guitar and a banjo, instead of two banjos. For the first minute of the song, the Navy musicians play Duelling Banjos much as it occurs in Deliverance, before the guitar player switches to Jingle Bells.
The Banjo player answers, then the call and response gradually picks up pace. Classic Country Music notes: “Suddenly, the two band members burst into some fast-paced pickin’, but still keep up the Jingle Bells tune. We don’t know if y’all have ever heard “Jingle Bells” on a banjo before, but it sounds pretty cool!” Cool as that may be, the coolest version of Jingle Bells may well be the prank performance by Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra on 16 December 1965.
The Gemini 6 pre-Christmas stunt was carefully planned – the astronauts smuggled a miniature Hohner Little Lady harmonica (one inch long) and sleigh bells aboard the space vehicle. Jingle Bells became one of the first songs broadcast from space. Given the state of communications between NASA headquarters and the space capsule at the time, one can forgive the lo-fi quality of the historic recording.
Far from referring to the the jingle jangle of Santa’s reindeer-powered sleigh, as alluded to by the Gemini astronauts, who pretend to have seen an unidentified, orbiting Santa craft, the sleigh bells in the song refer to bells that were hung around sleigh horses as a warning to avoid collisions. The lyrics, which have been modified over the years, refer to a “one horse open sleigh”, such as used in the annual 19th-Century sleigh races that were staged in Medford, Massachusetts, where the song was written.
Given the enduring appeal of Jingle Bells, and it’s association with “the time of giving”, it may be a surprise that James Lord Pierpont is likely to have knocked The One Horse Open Sleigh together purely to make a quick buck. According to music historian Kyna Hamill, “Everything about the song is churned out and copied from other people and lines from other songs – there’s nothing original about it.”
To return to the US Navy Band’s Duelling Jingle Bells, it should be noted that the United States Navy Band has a number of performing units including the Concert Band, the Ceremonial Band, the Sea Chanters, the Commodores, the Cruisers, and Country Current. Country Current, which plays Duelling Jingle Bells in the video above, is the Navy’s foremost country-bluegrass ensemble. Since it’s formation in 1973, Country Current has performed at the prestigious Grand Ole Opry, as well as for Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Country Current are certainly consummate performers. No wonder that, in 2011, the group became the first military band to play the Austin, Texas-based South x Southwest music festival. As one YouTube commentator puts it: “I love how the guitarist is so smiley and excited while the banjo guy is doing such a good job of keeping a deadpan expression! … Thanks for spreading fun music like this”.