This is about a song … the song was dedicated to John P Ordway, Esq. A “lengthy obituary of John Pond Ordway, [described him as] ‘a prominent citizen of Boston’ who had been “identified in many important enterprises” in his fifty-six years.”
“The obituary described Ordway’s Harvard education, enlistment in the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, and role as ‘one of ten surgeons sent to minister to the wounded’ at Gettysburg, as well as his political career, his thirty-year involvement in Freemasonry, and, not least of all, his ‘splendid physique.’”
“In this midst of these personal, professional, and physical attributes, the obituary described the pursuit of his ‘early life’: music. Not only did Ordway ‘write many popular songs,’ but he also ‘organized the troupe known as Ordway’s Aeolians, which performed in Ordway Hall, where the Province House now stands.’” (Tucker)
It was at Ordway Hall, on September 15, 1857, that the song was first performed by the minstrel performer Johnny Pell in a part of the program of the Dandy Darkies. (Hamill)
Johnny Pell, an endman – meaning he lampooned white civility in his ‘blackness’ – would have likely performed the song through the medium of the blackface dandy. (Hamill)
Blackface minstrelsy, which derived its name from the white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork, was a form of entertainment that reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century. (Library of Congress)
Using caricatures of African Americans in song, dance, tall tales, and stand-up comedy, minstrelsy was immensely popular with white audiences. (Library of Congress)
The classic age of blackface minstrelsy began in the late 1830s, when performers began to regularly form duos, trios, and occasionally quartets. By the 1840s, the show typically was divided into two parts: the first concentrated largely upon the urban black dandy, the second on the southern plantation slave. (Library of Congress)
At the same time, “sleighmania” onstage seems to have peaked during the 1857–8 entertainment season in Boston and New York. The popularity of burlesquing the sleigh narrative onstage might also reflect the activity in the newly opened Central Park that same season. (Hamill)
In these sleigh songs, singing about sleighing becomes the subject. “British actor Charles Mathews first toured Boston in 1823 and wrote back to his wife of the novelty of sleighs replacing carriages in the snow-filled streets …”
“‘These people are all happy, and as merry as Americans can affect to be, – that vexes me, who can only make myself happy by anticipating a thaw, and death to their mad frolics in their sleighs.’” (Hamill)
Sleighing as a mode of transportation evolved not only due to the climate, but also to accommodate the urban development of a peninsular city accessible by an isthmus known as the “neck” along Washington Street. (Hamill)
Sleighing was a popular activity not only for amusement, but also to display wealth. In 1857, the New-York Daily Times reported that EP (Edwin Pearce) Christy, founder of Christy’s Minstrels …
… ostentatiously made “a great dash in the streets, with a magnificent sleigh, which attracted unusual attention, from its splendor and the beauty of the prancing stud of snow-white horses to which it was attached.” (Hamill)
If speed, distance, flirting, and music were the essential qualities of a sleigh ride, it is probable that alcohol was also involved: temperance societies began warning people to “look out for the combination of cold sleigh rides, and hot punches.” (Hamill)
Sleigh riding was adopted as a youthful courtship ritual. Sleighing, such as an account by the humorist Mortimer Q. Thomson, “I can readily conceive that in the country …”
“… give a man a fast team, a light sleigh, a clear sky, a straight road, a pretty girl, plenty of snow, and a good tavern with a bright ball-room and capital music waiting at his journey’s end, the frigid amusement may be made endurable”. (Hamill)
These settings are seen in parts of different verses of the song … i.e. in one verse, “A day or two ago … I tho’t I’d take a ride … And soon miss Fanny Bright … Was seated by my side” – and in another verse, “Now the ground is white … Go it while you’re young … Take the girls tonight … and sing this sleighing song”. (Pierpont)
The song was written by James Lord Pierpont – he was the uncle of JP (John Pierpont) Morton (American financier and industrial organizer, one of the world’s foremost financial figures during the two pre-World War I decades). (Britannica)
Some suggest Pierpont wrote the song for his brother or father (bother ministers in Savanna, Georgia and Medford, Massachusetts, respectively) as a song for a Thanksgiving church service; due to its popularity, they say it was sung again at the following Christmas service.
Each city has a plaque outside proclaiming it as their song.
The song became immensely popular – some suggest it is one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time. The song was the first song broadcast from space during a Gemini mission in 1965.
Rather than it being a song for Thanksgiving written by the organist and choir director (James Pierpont) at his brother’s or father’s church, as many suggest … “The speculation is that [Pierpont] was short on funds, and just kind of dashed it off in order to make some money”. (Hendricks, WSAV)
As noted by Hamill, “its origins emerged from the economic needs of a perpetually unsuccessful man [James Pierpont], the racial politics of antebellum Boston, the city’s climate, and the intertheatrical repertoire of commercial blackface performers moving between Boston and New York.” (Hamill)
Pierpont capitalized on minstrel music and entered upon a “safe” ground for satirizing black participation in northern winter activities. (Hamill)
The legacy of the song is a prime example of a common misreading of much popular music from the nineteenth century in which its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history. (Hamill)
Oh, the song? …
Pierpont first named it (in 1857) “One Horse Open Sleigh”; he recopyrighted it in 1859 under a new name … Jingle Bells.