We know that the third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is racist, and the children’s song “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” is also suspect, but a Boston professor is now saying that “Jingle Bells” might as well be called “Jungle Boogie.”
OK—she never said that, but theater historian Kyra Hamill did discover that the beloved Christmas song has racist roots.
Hamill, a lecturer in Boston University’s core curriculum and theater programs, traced the history of “Jingle Bells” to try to definitively settle its origins. Two cities—Medford, Mass., and Savannah, Ga.—have laid claim to the song.
What she found in a paper published earlier this year, “The Story I Must Tell: ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Minstrel Repertoire,” was that “Jingle Bells” was originally performed in blackface in a minstrel show—oh, and the song’s author, James Lord Pierpont, didn’t write it in Medford.
“I don’t have the definite answer to where [Pierpont] sat down and wrote the song,” Hamill, who lives in Medford, said in an interview with BU Today. “But—and this is where my town is going to be mad at me—it was absolutely not written in 1850 at the Simpson Tavern in Medford.” The town boasts a plaque saying just that, according to Boston 25 News. Hamill says that Pierpont was living in California in 1850.
The first time the song was performed was at Boston’s Ordway Hall on Sept. 15, 1857, in blackface, as the song “One Horse Open Sleigh.” Southerners claim that Pierpont wrote the song in 1857 in Savannah, the city in which he died in 1866.
“The legacy of ‘Jingle Bells’ is, as we shall see, 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 argues in her research paper.
Of course, conservative “news” outlets like Breitbart and Fox said that yet another liberal was trying to take Christmas away from the good Christian white people just by being historically accurate. Breitbart even reported that Hamill wanted Medford to cancel its annual Jingle Bell Festival—which Hamill strongly denied to the Boston Herald.
“I never said it was racist now,” said Hamill, “nowhere did I say that. My point was that because it is now included in the Christmas catalog of songs—attention is only given to it during the Christmas season—it has eluded rigorous study.” She added that the blackface “performance tradition is historical fact and continued in the U.S. until the 1930s as an amateur entertainment.”
She continued: “I did not write the article to make people upset. At no point have I ever made a claim on what people should or should not sing at Christmas.”
It’s obvious that some people can’t handle the truth.
Editor’s note: The original post misidentified Medford, Mass., as a city in Georgia.