Students at a New York high school have been forbidden from singing Jingle Bells due to fears that it may be performed for the first time by blackface minstrels.
Council Rock Primary school in Rochester’s Brighton Central has removed this festive favourite from its music program. Its first performance in public may have been in 1857 at a minstrel show, where blackface actors sang the tune.
The school substituted the Christmas classic instead with music that doesn’t have the potential to offend or be controversial, Matt Tappon from Council Rock told The Rochester Beacon. The Rochester Beacon first reported the story December 23.
Tappon and others confirmed to Tappon that they made the decision following reading Kyna Hayil’s 2017 research article about the song’s origins.
Council Rock Primary school in Rochester’s Brighton Central has taken out ‘Jingle Bells’ off its music program. Principal Matt Tappon explained that the song may have been performed for the first time by white actors in blackface in a 1857 minstrel show
Tappon explained that instead, they replaced the Christmas classic with songs that weren’t controversial and offensive.
Hamill describes the history and life of James L. Pierpont. The song may have first been performed publicly in 1857, possibly by blackface actors at a Boston minstrel performance.
However, many people in the area were unhappy with the banning of the song and claimed that it was an innocent and normal part of winter holidays celebrations. Therefore, Kevin McGowan from Brighton Central School District published a statement on the district website explaining their decision.
‘… it may seem silly to some, but the fact that ‘Jingle Bells’ was first performed in minstrel shows where white actors performed in blackface does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school,’ he wrote.
“I’m happy that our staff stopped when they learned of this, and reflected, before deciding to use different material in order to achieve the exact same objective in class,” continues the letter. It also states that the song is so closely related to Christmas that not all in the area celebrate it, so it was unlikely that the district would have axed it.
Kevin McGowan (Brighton Central School District Superintendent) published an explanation letter to the district’s website.
Kyna Hayil, Boston University Core Curriculum director, has written a detailed article on the history of the song.
Also, the superintendent rebutted claims that school had been influenced by ‘woke ideology’ writing that “choosing songs different from ‘Jingle Bells” wasn’t major policy, an initiative to change a concert’s repertoire or a banning of the song was not a significant decision made in response to a complaint.
This was not “liberalism at its worst” or “cancel culture at it’s best”, as some may have suggested. There has never been a suggestion to my children or anyone saying that they shouldn’t sing Jingle Bells. You can be assured that the situation you are in isn’t an effort to force an agenda. McGowan said that we were not discussing the song or its origins.
However, many were shocked by the school’s decision to ban the song. Even the author of the article that defended their decision was not surprised. Hamill wrote to the Rochester Beacon, “I’m actually shocked that the school would take the song out of the repertoire.” … I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children.’
“My article tried tell the story the first time the song was performed, however I did not link this with the traditional Christmas song being sung now.
“The mere fact that (Jingle Bells) is so popular has everything to do with the catchy tune of the song and should not be understood only in relation to its roots in minstrel traditions. … I would say it should very much be sung and enjoyed, and perhaps discussed,’ she wrote, adding that this was the first time she ever heard of a district banning the song.
The Rochester Beacon shared Hamill’s reply with Allison Rioux (Brighton Central School District assistant superintendent of curriculum instruction), who said that Hamill was referring to “Jingle Bells” because the collars worn by slaves were equipped with bells so they could send out alerts when the master ran.
Hamill spoke to Hamill about the topic, and she stated that it was possible that the lyrics were related.
“Perhaps, finding a referenced source for the claim could be an option if (school officials are) trying to figure out why it is not being sung,” she said.
Hamill’s article does include a brief biography on the song’s composer James L. Pierpont – a music teacher, church organist, and songwriter whose father was, in fact, an ardent abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
Hamill said that “Jingle Bells” is more romantic song about courtship and alone time on a horseback ride.
The song is a secular holiday favorite that has been popular since its conception. Joy Oladokun performed it most recently, an African folk singer and queer performer.
It has become a well-known secular holiday song and was broadcast by Gemini 6 astronauts in space nine days prior to Christmas 1965.
After lighting the National Christmas Tree, in 2016, President Barack Obama had the White House sing the tune.
Recently, Joy Oladokun covered the song for Apple Music. Joy Oladokun (a black folk singer) gave it a rock-inspired modern spin. She is queer and mixes her Tracy Chapman-influenced tracks with messages of activism as well as her own experiences as a person of color living in America.
Oladokun’s song, “Who Do I Go To?” was released after George Floyd’s murder by police in May 2020. The sad tune is an ode to her feelings in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.
Ironically, the school chose to close the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity & the Transformation of Schools as its consulting firm. It is part of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
NYU’s Steinhardt School hosted a Christmas concert in December 2019 that featured young artists who represent ‘NYU’s commitment to cultural diversity’ and included Christmas classics ;adapted to Afro-Latin rhythms’ – including ‘Jingle Bells.’