This is part 27 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
During my writing and researching the posts for this series, I have been quite surprised by two things. First, the number of Christmas songs written in the summer. It really makes sense, if you think about it. If the song’s performance is to be at Christmas and there is to be time for writing and arranging music as well as sometimes adding lyrics not to mention rehearsal time for performers and possibly recording the song, all before the arrival of the Christmas season, it is almost surprising the process doesn’t begin more often as soon as Christmas is over for the the current year meaning preparation should begin for the next year. Second, the number of “Christmas” or at least “Holiday” songs that at least had some serious assistance along the way by people of the Jewish faith.
“Sleigh Ride” fits both of these things. It is one of those tunes written in the summer, except it wasn’t ready for the next Christmas. It was two years after the writing of the music before the song’s debut performance or recording. Second, the lyrics were written by a man of the Jewish faith.
Like so many other things, during The Great Depression, The Boston Pops Orchestra was having financial difficulty. When Arthur Fiedler, a violinist, pianist and percussionist, took over the direction of The Boston Pops, he quickly saw the need to expand the audience. To that point the Pops played for Boston’s elite. The common working class saw the music and the concerts as stuffy events they could neither afford nor had desire to attend.
Fiedler changed all that. He changed the musical genre to combine what he saw as the best of contemporary music such as jazz with the sounds of classical music. The plan worked and changed the direction of the Pops forever.
Fiedler began relying on a Boston area composer named Leroy Anderson for music the orchestra would play. Anderson wrote several songs before World War II but at the beginning of the war, Anderson entered military service. He actually continued writing during the war years.
When the war ended Anderson returned to Boston and took up where he left off. During a July heat wave in 1946 he came up with the basic idea for “Sleigh Ride.” As Anderson sat down to write, he wanted to create a sound that was so distinct there would be no question as one listened that the song was about going on a sleigh ride in the cold of winter.
Anderson never got in a hurry to complete his work. He worked and edited until he knew it was right. In the case of “Sleigh Ride” it took almost two years to complete, finishing in 1948. Once complete, Fiedler and the Pops recorded the song in 1949. The release of the song was in early winter 1949, just before Christmas. It was a hit that became one of the signature songs of the Pops. The Pops also recorded the song two additional times under the direction of the two conductors who succeeded Fiedler.
When he heard first heard the song, lyricist Mitchell Parish (born to a Jewish family as Michael Hyman Pashelinsky) heard the song and wanted to put words to the tune, not to detract from Anderson’s work but to enhance it. Once completed, there was no shortage of performers desiring to record it, probably based on the original instrumental version and Parish’s reputation as a lyricist. “The Andrews Sisters” were the first to record the version that included lyrics. Since that time there has been a long list of those who recorded both the instrumental version as well as the lyrics version.
Since the song was written, it has only made a trip up the music charts once. Considering the number of recordings of “Sleigh Ride” that is kind of surprising. According to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) the song maintains a position in the top ten of Christmas music each year.
When I think about this song, it seems to me, The Great Depression came close to putting The Boston Pops out of business as happened to many orchestras. But, at the same time, had it not been for The Great Depression Arthur Fiedler may never have become to conductor of the Pops, leading to its change in direction and eventually the recording of “Sleigh Ride.”
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.