Upstate NY school bans “Jingle Bells” because of the song’s “racist past”

I know we’re coming to the end of the holiday season for 2021 and that this space has had plenty of stories about Christmas music over the last month, but I promise that this will be the last one.

What’s the first Christmas carol anyone learns? It’s probably either “Silent Night” or “Jingle Bells,” right? “Silent Night” is a straight-up hymn written in Germany in 1818. “Jingle Bells” is a beloved secular holiday song that’s festive and easy to sing. Let’s explore that.

“Jingle Bells” is one of the most often sung American songs the world has ever seen. The four-verse ditty was written by James Lord Pierpoint as “The One Horse Open Sleigh” back in the fall of 1857. The story is that it was originally written for a choir to sing for Thanksgiving. Most likely, though, Pierpoint conceived it as a drinking song for the taverns of the day. In fact, a plaque stands today on the former site of the Simpson Tavern in Boston, commemorating the spot where “Jingle Bells” was composed.

As fun a drinking song as it might have been, it became indelibly associated with Christmas by the end of the 1870s. It was so popular that it became the first Christmas song to ever be committed to an Edison cylinder in 1889.

Since then, the song has been covered innumerable times, sung by unaccountable people on an infinite number of occasions. And why not? It tells the story of people having a grand time roaring through the snow at high speed.

Here’s the rub. A school in Brighton, New York, (it’s near Rochester) has banned “Jingle Bells.” Students will no longer be able to sing the song and nor will it be part of any holiday celebrations involving the school. Why? Because of “its potential to be controversial or offensive.”

“Wait,” you ask, “Are we talking about the same ‘Jingle Bells?'” Yes, we are.

The school’s ban is based on a 12,000-word piece of research done by Kyna Hamill, a professor at Boston University, back in 2017. This paper documents that the first public performance of “Jingle Bells” was on September 15, 1857, at Ordway Hall by a singer named Johnny Pell. He was a white singer performing in blackface as part of a minstrel show. Who knew, right?

There’s also another issue. The school has a theory–and no one is sure where this came from–that “some suggest that the use of collars on salves with bells to send an alert that they were running away is connected to the origin of the song.” (This is not mentioned anywhere in Hamill’s paper. She also can’t quite believe that the school is being so strict when it comes to applying her research.)

The school, therefore, believes that because the song has a racist past, it should be banned. I quote from NewYorkUpstate.com:

Brighton Superintendent Kevin McGowan told WHAM on Tuesday that he stood by the district’s “ongoing effort to be more culturally responsive, thoughtful, and inclusive… It may seem silly to some, but the fact that ‘Jingle Bells’ was first performed in minstrel shows where white actors performed in blackface does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school.”

McGowan also dismissed claims it was a “liberalism gone amok” or “cancel culture.”

“I can assure you that this situation is not an attempt to push an agenda. We were not and are not even discussing the song and its origins, whatever they may be. This was very simply a thoughtful shift made by thoughtful staff members who thought they could accomplish their instructional objective using different material. The change in material is also not something being forced on children or propaganda being spread,” McGowan told the Rochester television station. “It is as simple as this, we are using different songs, and we are not teaching about their history at this level. Nobody is discussing politics about the song or anything regarding its history with students. This is not a political situation, it was a simple, thoughtful curricular decision.”

I leave you to discuss this move with friends and family over the remainder of this holiday season.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.