Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Story Behind The Song

From a blistering pre-Thanksgiving Savannah, Georgia day in the 1850s a most unlikely song was born.  Jingle Bells:  How The Holiday Classic Came To Be written by John Harris and illustrated by Adam Gustavson proposes and illuminates that moment in time.  James Lord Pierpont's wish fostered by love still endures.

A sweltering humid heat stalked James Pierpont and his daughter, Lillie, on a November day.  As they entered the Unitarian Church glass crackled beneath Pierpont's feet; another thrown brick had broken a window.  A congregation, some members who were former slaves, was not a welcome one.

As they swept the glass Mr. Pierpont mused aloud about the cooler, snowy weather this time of year in his native Boston.  He could not believe that his daughter has never seen snow nor ridden in a sleigh with a brick warming her feet rather then being an instrument of destruction.  They are joined by a Mrs. FitzHugh and her daughter, Esther of four years; rare at this time for an African American child to be adopted by a Caucasian parent.

When they inquire about the new song for the holiday concert, Mr. Pierpont, music director for the church, admits he has none.  Still distracted by the heat he asks Esther if she has ever ridden in a sleigh or heard their bells ringing.  Moving up to the balcony he plays some notes on the organ imitating that sound. 

Remembering comments made by Mrs. FitzHugh in response to his playing and those enjoyable sleigh rides from his earlier years, he composes what was originally named One Horse Open Sleigh.  As the narrative continues the congregation is in for a treat, coming down the aisle the night of the concert ringing strands of bells are Esther and Lillie.  The other children file in behind them each carrying a bag.  Bells ringing the group finishes their cheerful new melody opening their bags filling the air with white feathers; it snowed in Savannah that evening.

In his author's note, John Harris, says:

I'm not a historian and don't claim to be one. ... All I've tried to do, really, is remind the reader that a small and unexpected chain of events can provide the inspiration for something much bigger--in this case, a song that the whole world knows and loves.

From a visit to Savannah, Georgia, conversations with people at the Unitarian Church and some research, Harris has penned a believable chain of events that lead to the composition of a tune that has lasted for more than 150 years as a favorite holiday classic.  The easy flow of conversation between his characters opens up a window into their world.  Most apparent in this telling is Pierpont's passion for his beliefs while serving at the Unitarian Church and keen imagination allowing him to depict the spirit of a northern holiday season in a unique manner.

The endpapers to this title covered with white feathers falling on a taupe background will most certainly pique readers' curiosity.  Illustrations rendered in oils on prepared 100% cotton archival water paper bring texture and vibrancy to the story.  It is pleasing to see that Gustavson varied his size and placement of visuals; using double page landscapes to enhance a point, the title page picture of the Unitarian Church, having a single page illustration bleed back onto the previous page, Pierpont and his daughter sweeping up the glass with a shattered path trailing to the left, or a single page followed by an inset, Pierpont going up to the organ loft followed by a close-up of his hand on the keys.  My favorite though is James Lord Pierpont happily playing the organ and singing his new composition in the loft followed by open-mouthed children joining in . 

This charming chronicle of a timeless tune portrayed in a fictional picture book by John Harris and Adam Gustavson is just what it is meant to be; a perfect piece of our historical pie to be enjoyed at each taste.  It will make readers think, wonder, or maybe do a little research of their own.  Perhaps they, too, will one day encounter, on a trip as John Harris did, through conversation, or through reading, a small portion of time that they can bring to light for others to enjoy.

No comments:

Post a Comment