How did a song meant for Thanksgiving, and a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 become the best-known and most commonly sung songs of the Christmas and holiday season? Each has an interesting story.
“Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893), and copyrighted and published under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857. It has since entered into the public domain. Sleigh songs were popular back in the day then, especially among the youth. “One Horse Open Sleigh” was written for a Thanksgiving Sunday school program where Pierpont was organist. It was not popular at its first release. Pierpont changed the name in 1859 to Jingle Bells. It attained fame gradually, and somehow got associated with Christmas. By 1890, it was a big Christmas hit, and remained among the top 25 most recorded songs in the world until well into the 1950s.
The original tune’s refrain was very similar to the Christmas song “jolly Old Saint Nicholas”, and interestingly had the same chord progression as the famous Canon in D by Pachelbel. The tune was modified to the version we now know and love.
According to music historian James Fuld, the word “jingle” in the title and opening line of the song is an imperative verb rather than a descriptive term. Prior to the automobile, sleighs were commonly used in New England during the winter. Since a horse-drawn sleigh moves silently on snow, bells were strapped onto the horses’ harnesses to warn others and avoid collisions. The rhythm of the song is also meant to mimic the gait of a horse-trot.
“Bobtail” (“Bells on bobtails ring”) refers to the tail of a horse which has been cut short to prevent it from getting caught in the reins, a common practice in sleigh races.
In recognition of the song’s unprecedented popularity, James Lord Pierpont was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1970.
‘Jingle Bells’ became the first song to be played in outer space. The context was a Christmas-themed prank pulled by astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra on board the spacecraft Gemini 6. On 16 December 1965, they sent in this report to Mission Control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit… I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.” And the proceeded to play the tune Jingle Bells on a smuggled harmonica (Hohner’s little Lady model), with the chime of sleigh bells thrown in for good measure. Both instruments are now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Washington DC, and are considered to be the first musical instruments ever to be played in outer space.
“Auld Lang Syne” (translated from the Scots as “old long since” or “long long ago”) is a poem worked upon by Robert Burns after stumbling upon an old song. He submitted it to the Scots Musical Museum with this comment: “The following song, an old song, of the olden times and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”
It rapidly became customary for the song to be sung in Scotland at Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) and from there to the rest of the British Isles.
It is not known for sure if the melody we are familiar with is the same one that Burns had in mind. The melody we are accustomed to is believed to have come from a fast-paced, lively dance called a strathspey. This is in contrast to the solemn, slower tempo in which it is sung today.
The tune itself uses the pentatonic scale, which is perhaps why it has proven so universally appealing all over the world, as so many cultures also employ this scale.
In addition to being sung at New Year, Auld Lang Syne is used at other events commemorating “endings/new beginnings.” It is played at Naval and Military Colleges in India (the National Defence Academy Khadakwasla; Indian Military Academy; Officers’ Training Academy Chennai) and other Commonwealth countries (Pakistan, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Nigeria, Canada).
The tune was played on 30 June 1997 by the silver and pipe bands of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force to mark the departure of Hong Kong’s last British Governor Chris Patten from his official residence.
The melody of Auld Lang Syne has also been fittingly used in the popular Bengali song “Purano shei diner kotha” (Memories of the Old Days), one of the many iconic songs belonging to Rabindra Sangeet (Rabindra’s songs; songs composed by Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore).
Between 1948 and 1972, the tune also was the national anthem of the Maldives. In 1948, the young poet (and later Chief Justice) Mohamed Jameel Didi was invited to write the lyrics for a new “Salaamathi.” He came up with “Qaumi Salaam”, a work influenced by Urdu poetry, and with some words borrowed from the Arabic. Casting about for inspiration for a tune to accompany his lyrics, he heard the noon chime (which happened to be the Auld Lang Syne tune) of the new clock that his uncle Chief Justice Hussain Salahuddine had acquired. He liked it, and with a few modifications it became incorporated into the national anthem. In 1972, shortly before the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the island nation, the Maldives government commissioned Sri Lankan maestro Wannakuwatta Mitiwaduge Don Albert Pereira (better known as Amaradeva) for a new tune to fit the old lyrics penned by Didi with just a few changes to reflect the fact that the Maldives was now a republic.
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 December 2013 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)