My parents gave me a Christmas ornament that howls “Jingle Bells.”
It’s a kitschy, funny Christmas item that appeals to dog lovers like myself but also people who lived through a bizarre part of the nineties when novelty Christmas songs like “The Twelve Pains Of Christmas” dominated Top 40 radio in December. It’s funny! It’s cute! It’s a unique type of annoying that might drive me to throw the ornament at a wall!
The ornament has served the funny purpose of making my dog insane but it also represents a much deeper Christmas question: what is the origination of the barking dog “Jingle Bells”? It’s not as straightforward as you would think and is a lot, a lot, a lot older than you might have assumed. The song comes from a novelty act called The Singing Dogs who would covered popular, simple songs in the 1950s.
Their story is fascinating too. AllMusic explains—
The Singing Dogs was a recording project created in the mid-’50s by Carl Weismann, a noted Danish ornithologist who specialized in recording bird calls. Inspired by having to frequently edit dog barks out of his scientific field recordings, Weismann came up with the idea to splice together several recordings of dog barks into a short melody, manipulating the tape speed to change their pitch and tune them to music. While this may be deemed a tacky novelty by contemporary standards, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when tape experimentation was in its infancy, this was an impressive and arduous task.
So, not only are the dogs old, they’re also Euro dogs. There were four of them and they went by the names Dolly, Pearl, Caesar, and King.
“Jingle Bells” wasn’t their only song either. Weismann worked with a producer named Don Charles to edit the sounds and turn them into something more melodic. They produced covers of classics like “Pat-A-Cake” and “Three Blind Mice,” songs suitable for pre-school entertainment.
What’s interesting about The Singing Dogs and Weismann is that the work represents something deeper than canine musical fun: it was actually a pioneering moment in music, particularly electronic music. How? Because this song was entirely created by found sounds and exists only as a record as opposed to something that could be created live. The Atlantic explains—
Nick Seaver, who explores the fringes of music at his blog, Noise for Airports, points to “Dripsody” as the cerebral counterpoint to the Singing Dogs. Canadian Hugh LeCaine composed it in 1955—the same year Americans heard the Singing Dogs—entirely from the recording of one drop of water.
“You have a single type of sound source and a concern for pitch, but it operates with totally different goals and values as far as composition is concerned,” Seaver said in an email.
Fascinating though it is, “Dripsody” didn’t resonate much beyond the community of early electronic musicians. The Singing Dogs, however, hit # 22 on the Billboard chart in 1955 (it reached an even higher position upon re-release in 1971). Music recordings at the time were considered mere substitutes for live performances; for many listeners, this was the first music they had heard that could exist only as a recording.
The song has gone on to get a few rereleases, rising up the charts whenever it’s released onto the world. It touches on something funny and sweet, perhaps the innocence of dogs and the universality of music. As my little ornament illustrates and the many lyric websites translating dog barks prove, there is a constant appeal to this bizarre dog music. Who knew it all came about because of a Christmas song?
If dog music as such is your thing, catch other hits (“hits”) by The Singing Dogs below.