You’ve probably seen them on a street corner, or at the mall, at a holiday party, or even strolling through your workplace or neighborhood. Carolers. People tend to love or despise them. I’ve felt both emotions on encountering these groups of smiling singers, especially if I have no warning ahead of time. However, I may as well confess: I spent a few years with a company that hired out a cappella caroling quartets.
We wore Dickensian (early Victorian) outfits. The men in high-waisted trousers, vests, and top hats. Women in long skirts puffed out with scratchy crinolines, bonnets decorated with bits of floral fluff and ribbons, and a wool wrap draped over the shoulders. These picturesque outfits were always wrong for the ambient temperature, leaving us sweating while singing indoors and shivering outdoors.
We worked from a book with around 120 tunes, most of them traditional carols photocopied from hymnals, plus a few Hanukkah songs and some mid-twentieth century hits like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Let it Snow!” and “The Christmas Song.” We strolled or stood, whatever the venue decreed. When we’d sung for a bit, drawn a crowd, we would invite people to request songs. Always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to being put on the spot. Some people would have a brain freeze, while others eagerly shouted out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “All I Want for Christmas is You” only to get a “Sorry, we don’t have that in the book, would you like to hear something else?” This is when, inevitably, one of the following three songs would be suggested: “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” or “O Holy Night.”
Over the course of a one- or two-hour gig we would sing Jingle Bells one miiiillion times. Okay, 10 or 15 times. It’s a short song even if you do all the normal verses, which tell a tale about the joys of riding in a “one-horse open sleigh” (the original title), even when the occupants get “upsot” in verse two. This song has a Massachusetts connection. Its composer was sometime-organist James Lord Pierpont, who was born in the state. High Street in Medford, MA, features a plaque claiming (mistakenly) that Pierpont composed Jingle Bells in 1850 while pounding ales in the town’s Simpson Tavern. Pierpont did live in Medford for a while, but in 1850 he was in California. He copyrighted “One-Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857 while living in Savannah, Georgia, so the people of Savannah also lay claim to the birthplace of the song. Like “Let It Snow,” this is a song about the winter sport of sleigh-riding rather than Christmas, but it’s been associated with that holiday since at least 1900. Fun fact: Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, on December 16, 1965! Not so fun facts: Jingle Bells was first publicly performed in 1857, at a blackface minstrel show in Boston by the singer Johnny Pell. Also, after his move to Georgia Pierpont fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederates.
Despite its shady origins, Jingle Bells peps up a crowd. With a range of just a fifth, the chorus is eminently singable, and the audience often joins in. Silent Night, on the other hand…It’s a beautiful song, but with a big range for casual singers (an 11th) and a bunch of treacherous high notes in the second half. Maybe because of the high notes, the audience tends to listen to Silent Night instead of sing along. This was our most cried-to piece. It’s been stirring emotions since 1818. The lyrics were written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, while the music was set by organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The first version was for voice and guitar because the organ in Mohr’s church was broken. I’m glad Mohr specified guitar: in my opinion the emotional content of Silent Night is beautifully expressed with voice and guitar.
The truly scary high notes come in O Holy Night. Many arrangements give the melody to the tenor, but our book followed the original performance practice and gave the soprano the high Bbs. (Fortunately I sang alto and stayed below the Death Zone.) Whenever a listener would request this this piece, if we’d already done it once or twice, the soprano got the veto. O Holy Night was our most-denied tune. It’s another song from the 1800s, 1847, to be precise, with music by organist Adolphe Adam set to lyrics by one-handed poet/wine merchant Placide Cappeau.
The original title is “Cantique de Noel,” and its lyrics are quite progressive, opposing slavery and elite abuse of power. Here’s a sample from verse 2: “Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,/A votre orgueil, c’est de la que Dieu preche.” This basically translates as “Mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, It is to your pride that god preaches.” Even though the song was a popular hit, the French church authorities banned it from religious services for a time because it turned out that Cappeau was an atheist. John Sullivan Dwight , a Unitarian minister, liberally translated the lyrics into English in 1855, giving the last verse an expicitly Abolitionist bent.
I enjoy singing the old songs. Just as with reading a novel from the 1800s or a poem written in 900, there’s a thrill in the connection with the past. However, by the end of a 20-Jingle-Bell gig my singing smile could stretch a little tight.
Back at the dressing room, the first off would be the bonnet. Once I had my sweater and jeans back on and had shoved the last prickly bit of crinoline into the depths of the garment bag, I donned my headphones. Something non-holiday to drive the carols to the back of the brain, until the next time I needed to sing them with a smile.