Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 16, 2007
DeKalb, Ill. — As far as Christmas carols go, 1857 was a banner year in American history.
That fall, one composer in New York and another from Boston penned two of the most beloved American Christmas carols ever – “Jingle Bells” and “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” In honor of the 150th anniversary of those songs, noted Christmas carol expert William Studwell has named them the Co-Christmas Carols of the Year.
Aside from sharing the same year of birth, however, the two songs couldn’t be much more different, says Studwell, the nation’s recognized expert in Christmas carols, who has written numerous books on the topic. This is the 22nd year of his Carol of the Year series.
“Artistically, the two songs have nothing in common except the use of the English language and the Christmas holiday,” says Studwell, who served as chief cataloguer for the campus library at Northern Illinois University until his retirement in 2000.
“Jingle Bells,” Studwell says, was probably the first secular carol of consequence produced in the United States. A couple of other popular carols (“Up on the House Top” and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”) are of the same vintage, but cannot be definitively proven older.
The song, both words and music, was penned by James S. Pierpont, who was, by trade, an expert in reading and recitation. He wrote the song around Thanksgiving Day 1857 for use in a Sunday School program. Originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh,” the piece quickly caught the public’s fancy and grew into arguably the most performed and most influential secular American Christmas song. In fact “Jingle Bells” might be the most popular of all non-sacred Christmas songs in the world, says Studwell.
“Anyone singing it, or listening to it, can be swept up in the sensation of riding in a one-horse open sleigh,” he says.
As an aside, Studwell notes that while Pierpont grew up in Boston and came from a family of abolitionists, he wrote several songs that were supportive of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Also, while his greatest fame came from a song that painted an iconic winter scene, the author retired to Sarasota, Fla., decades before that became a common destination for retirees.
Studwell places “Jingle Bells” at No. 9 on his personal list of the top 25 Christmas carols ever.
This year’s second honoree, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” stands in marked contrast to its counterpart in almost every way.
“ ‘We Three Kings’ is smooth in style, oriental in atmosphere, biblical in content and religious in purpose,” asserts Studwell.
The religious nature of the song is hardly an accident. The author was John Henry Hopkins Jr., the son of a long-time Episcopal bishop of Vermont. He himself was a clergyman, as well as an author, journalist, book illustrator and designer of stained glass windows and other ecclesiastical objects. When he wrote the song in 1857 as a Christmas gift to his nieces and nephews Hopkins was working as editor of the Church Journal in New York City.
With such a background, Hopkins probably should have known better than to refer to the visitors from the East as kings rather than wise men or astronomers. His portrayal of the Magi so angered purists (who were upset that the lyric reinforced the misperception of the visitors as royalty) that the song was excluded from many hymnals for years.
That slight did nothing to harm the popularity of the piece, however. Evidence exists that the carol might have been published as early as 1859, and by 1865 it had worked its way into two carol collections, including one published in 1863 by Hopkins himself.
“That rapid sequence of publication no doubt reflected the quickly spreading fame of Hopkins’ carol, which ultimately became one of the most famous of all Christmas pieces,” says Studwell, who is a bit bemused by its popularity because he considers the lyrics grammatically questionable and clumsy in poetic flow. Taken as a whole, however, he considers the song “a very effective piece.”
“Although it’s not a truly outstanding tune, it is attractive and accessible, smooth and rhythmic,” he says. “It has an appropriate coating of mysticism and oriental flavoring. Despite its artistic and theological deficiencies, it has fulfilled its mission to relate the story of the visitors to the manger, from the Book of Matthew, better than any other work of music ever has.”
He places it 15th on his list of the top 25 Christmas Carols.
Studwell, 71, began researching Christmas carols in 1972 when he created a pamphlet about “Oh, Holy Night” as a gift for a family member. Since then, he has researched and written about hundreds of carols and has conducted nearly 500 media interviews on the topic for newspapers, radio and television. He also has served as an adviser to several projects compiling recordings and lyrics of carols.
He estimates that he has devoted more than 6,000 hours of his life to studying and writing about Christmas carols. At the height of his research, he had a room full of tables stacked high with more than 400 reference volumes from around the globe and immersed himself in collections at libraries across the country.
He also is a champion of several other musical genres that he believes are under-appreciated and has written extensively on college fight songs, state songs, patriotic music and circus music, becoming a nationally recognized expert in each of those fields. He has written 40 books in all.
Studwell now resides in Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 330-1996.
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