An upstate New York school has banned students from singing Jingle Bells over fears it was first performed by a minstrel act who wore blackface.
Council Rock Primary School, in Rochester’s Brighton Central School District, has banned the festive favorite from its music curriculum because of its first public performance may have been at an 1857 minstrel show in which white actors performed the tune in blackface.
Instead, the school replaced the festive classic with other songs that don’t have ‘the potential to be controversial or offensive,’ Council Rock principal Matt Tappon told The Rochester Beacon, which first reported the story on December 23.
Tappon and other staff confirmed to the news outlet that they came to the decision after reading a 2017 scholarly article on the song’s origins, written by Boston University Core Curriculum Director Kyna Hamil.
Council Rock Primary School, in Rochester’s Brighton Central School District, has banned ‘Jingle Bells’ from its music curriculum. 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
Instead, the school replaced the festive classic with other songs that don’t have ‘the potential to be controversial or offensive,’ Tappon said
Hamill explains the history of the song and the life of its composer, James L. Pierpont. She included documents showing that the song’s first public performance may have been in 1857 by white actors in blackface at a Boston minstrel show.
But many in the community took issue with the song being banned and argued that it’s a harmless and traditional part of celebrating the winter holidays, prompting Brighton Central School District Superintendent Kevin McGowan to publish a letter on the district’s website explaining the 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 glad that our staff paused when learning of this, reflected, and decided to use different material to accomplish the same objective in class,’ the letter continues, adding that the song is ‘so closely related’ to Christmas, which not everyone in the community celebrates, so the district would have likely nixed it either way.
Brighton Central School District Superintendent Kevin McGowan published a letter on the district’s website explaining the decision
The origins of the song are discussed in a scholarly article written by Boston University Core Curriculum Director Kyna Hamil.
The superintendent also hit back at claims that the school was swayed by ‘woke’ ideology, writing, ‘choosing songs other than ‘Jingle Bells’ wasn’t a major policy initiative, a ‘banning’ of the song or some significant change to a concert repertoire done in response to a complaint.’
‘This wasn’t ‘liberalism gone amok’ or ‘cancel culture at its finest’ as some have suggested. Nobody has said you shouldn’t sing ‘Jingle Bells’ or ever in any way suggested that to your children. I can assure you that this situation is not an attempt to push an agenda. We were not and are not even discussing the song and its origins, whatever they may be,’ McGowan continued.
Nevertheless, the decision to ban the song came as a shock to many, including the writer of the article the school used to defend their decision. When Hamill learned that Council Rock removed the song, in part because of her research, she wrote in an email to the Rochester Beacon: ‘I am actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire. … I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children.’
‘My article tried to tell the story of the first performance of the song, I do not connect this to the popular Christmas tradition of singing the song now.’
‘The very fact of (‘Jingle Bells’) popularity has to do (with) the very catchy melody of the song, and not to be only understood in terms of its origins in the minstrel tradition. … 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 response with Allison Rioux, Brighton Central School District assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who claimed that the song’s reference to ‘Jingle Bells’ is about the collars on slaves with bells to send alerts when they ran away from their master.
The news outlet followed up with Hamill on the subject and she said that while it may be true, ‘there is no connection to the song that I have discovered in my research.’
‘Perhaps finding a well-referenced source for this claim might be in order if that is what (school officials) want to determine as the cause for not singing it,’ she added.
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.
The song ‘Jingle Bells’ was more of a romantic tune about courtship and spending alone time on a sleigh ride, as such songs were all the rage in the mid-to-late 1800s, Hamill wrote.
Since its inception, the song has evolved into one of the most well-known secular holiday classics. It was most recently performed by Joy Oladokun, a black folk singer who identifies as queer
Since its inception, the song has evolved into one of the most well-known secular holiday classics and gained a new fame when it became the first song to have been broadcast from space, by Gemini 6 astronauts nine days before Christmas in 1965.
The tune has been sung countless times at the White House, most recently by President Barack Obama and his family upon lighting the National Christmas Tree in 2016.
And, most recently, the song received a modern rock spin when covered for Apple Music by Joy Oladokun, a black folk singer who identifies as queer and infuses her Tracy Chapman-influenced music with messages of activism and her personal experiences as a woman of color in America.
Following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Oladokun released the tune, ‘Who Do I Turn To?,’ a sobering ballad that references her reflections in the wake of that summers Black Lives Matter protests, such as her fears as a black woman of being pulled over or raising her voice.
What makes the school’s decision even more ironic is that one of the district’s consulting firms for its diverse and inclusive initiative is called the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. It’s 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.’