“Jingle Bells” the oldest surviving recording is by the Edison Male Quartet in this medley from 1898.
“Jingle Bells” was not a Christmas song! It was written in the mid-19th century by James Pierpont, who was living in the Southern US at the time and missing the snowy winters of his home in New England. Seems it was a popular Parlour song and played around the Thanksgiving holiday. It notes the beginning of winter, and as time went on the two holidays and subsequently the music, just got linked together.
As Christmas and Holiday songs dominate the most recorded songs of all time list it is no surprise this is the 9th most covered song with 1569 versions. The second recording was twenty seven years later in 1925 by the Shannon Quartet.
The upbeat recording by Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters from 1945 remains one of the most popular versions still today.
The amazing Katharine McPhee
Michael Bublé featuring The Puppini Sisters in the style of Bing and The Andrew Sisters.
This song was written as a poem by Richard (Dick) Smith as he admired the freshly fallen snow in his hometown of Honesdale Pennsylvania. Smith had Tuberculous, but before he succumbed to the disease in 1934 he showed the poem to his friend Felix Bernard who composed the music. The most popular version was the cover by Guy Lombardo which came out just a week after the original (above) on the competing Decca Records. Over the years it has been recorded by just about every major name from the 1930’s through to today’s stars such as Norah Jones and Thomas Rhett. It is the tenth most recorded song of all time with 1560 versions, just ahead of “Over the Rainbow” that currently has 1490 renditions.
There is no mention of Christmas at all in the song but of course it is full of the imagery of freshly fallen snow, sleigh bells and young love. The fictitious Parson Brown becomes a Circus Clown in the more children friendly version.
Here are some of the more popular versions, both Bennett and Love have charted with this song.
Personally I have to go with this swinging version by Ella Fitzgerald but I am sure you have your favorite(s).
As I mentioned in my last post to begin my series on Holiday/Christmas Songs I am starting with the more unconventional. Joni Mitchell’s “River” has been adopted as a Seasonal/Christmas song. Mitchell wrote the song with inspiration from her breakup with Graham Nash. Yes, it starts with a little “Jingle Bells” on the piano and references Christmas but not in a celebratory way. It’s essentially about missing someone and wanting to escape or “skate away” from the lonely feelings. There are many such songs that reflect the reality that not everyone is completely happy, just because the calendar shows it’s Christmastime. Those feeling lonely or missing a loved one, or anyone for that matter may find solace in this song. Typical of Joni Mitchell’s work it is deeply personal and at the same time relatable to millions of others in their own private struggles.
The song was not released as a single and is from her 1971 masterpiece Blue. As with many of her songs it went somewhat unnoticed and under appreciated for many years. It was first covered in 1974 by a friend and fellow Folk Singer Dave Van Ronk who was part of the Greenwich Village scene with Mitchell, Dylan, Phil Ochs and others. Mitchell has been quoted as saying his version of “Both Sides Now” is her favorite. It was then covered a few more times and never reached the charts but the first connection to a Christmas theme for the song was a version by Canadian Opera Singer Riki Turofsky where it appeared on her 1994 album A River So Long as it was paired with another non-Christmas song, this time written by Harry Nilsson titled “Remember (Christmas)” from his Son of Schmilsson released in 1972, it has been covered 20 times and it’s first Christmas theme appearance was on a Compilation album Cabaret Noël – A Broadway Cares Christmas in 1993. “Remember / Toyland” by K.T. Sullivan.
However, most of the credit for the connection seems to come from the appearance of “River” on Songs of the Season, a 1997 release by British Jazz guitarist Peter White. The album contained among other songs, “Jingle Bells”, “Silent Night” and “White Christmas”. Next it was on a Christmas Compilation assembled as a freebie insert by the renowned Dutch literary magazine De Gids in 1998. From there on it just grew from more ‘seasonal’ cover versions and appearances on more Christmas Albums, a bit of radio airplay and choirs including it in their Holliday repertoire. You will now hear it from your favorite streaming service when you request “Christmas Songs”.
Ellie Goulding covered this song and her 2019 Youtube release reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart. There are over 300 documented covers and according to secondhandsongs.com she is #14 on the list of of most covered singer songwriters with almost 2400 versions (of all her songs) being recorded. Needless to say that JoniMitchell.com is focused solely on her songs and they list 900 versions making it her second most covered song after “Both Sides Now” with 1573 covers.
It’s coming on Christmas They’re cutting down trees They’re putting up reindeer And singing songs of joy and peace Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on …
As I “wrap up” my miniseries on Billie Holiday I will finish with the only song she recorded that is associated with Christmas. That is to say it is not a Christmas song at all, however since it’s debut in the Musical, On the Avenue in 1937 the song has snuggled it’s way onto Christmas Albums by many an artist. It was first performed in the movie by Dick Powell and Alice Faye, the first record was by Ray Noble, which was released January 27, 1937 so chronologically it came out before the February 4, movie debut.
Billie was one of at least 10 artists to cover this song in it’s first year of release, and her version is often mentioned when referring to the more memorable renditions of the song. Written by Irving Berlin, the lyrics reference, wind, snow, cold, icicles and the month of December. At the time it was being recorded by Billie and many others it was a song about love and warmth, not a Holiday or Christmas song.
Here is a clip from the movie.
I am sure many of us are having our fill of Holiday and Christmas songs and for many December 26 brings some welcome relief in more ways than one. However tis’ the Season and so I thought to kick off my contribution I would give a little background on some of the songs such as this one that were not purpose designed. Many of the songs around Christmas and the Holidays have some interesting origins. For more on that story you can check out my upcoming Holidays #1 post.
If you have read some of my past posts you know how I love to connect the dots. I will leave you an interesting link between “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and Christmas Songs.
First, here is the legendary Jazz Guitarist Django Reinhardt and his oft partner the equally legendary Jazz Violinist Stéphane Grappelli with their instrumental version from 1938.
Again from 1938 we have Reinhardt but this time featuring the Violin stylings of the amazing Michel Warlop with “Christmas Swing”. In this case…perhaps all roads lead to Reinhardt.