Like many traditional songs that are heard around the holidays, “Sleigh Ride”, a song that evokes images of gliding along a snowy trail, was not written in the winter. And like even more “Christmas songs”, it was not originally intended to be heard only at Christmas.
Leroy Anderson, hired as an organist and then composer and arranger for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, was busy digging trenches on the property of his summer home in Woodbury, Connecticut, in 1946, when an idea for an orchestral piece came to him. One would not think that looking for buried pipes for spring water in a July heat wave could have anything to do with a classic holiday tune, but that’s what separates genius from the rest of us.
Not even bothering to put on his shirt, Anderson took a break from his digging and went into the house to write out some notes about his new idea. Although he liked the tune that came to him then, he knew that it was not strong enough by itself to carry an entire composition. He refined the piece and added a main tune to introduce it (section “A”) and a closing section, making the one he came up with on that July day the middle section (section “C”, which would eventually begin with the lyrics “There’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray”). “Sleigh Ride” would develop over the course of more than a year as Anderson continued to refine it.
Anderson’s idea was that this new piece would not be a song so much as an orchestral arrangement that musically depicts a sleigh ride. Once he had the idea of sleigh bells as a motif, he incorporated layers of motifs into his “pictorial thing”, much like an artist does on a canvas. As he described to PBS, “The point of a number like ‘Sleigh Ride’, that you can call a descriptive piece, or pictorial, is that you have to start with the idea of the rhythm, and whatever it is first. And in this case, it’s the rhythm of the sleigh bells, and these sleigh bells go ‘chink-chink-chink’… That’s the regular rhythm of sleigh bells, so, having done that, it’s necessary to build music around that rhythm. And of course, sleigh bells are repetitious: there’s this ‘bump-bump-bump-bump-bump’. And, having done that, it was very natural then to write a melody that was not only in the same rhythm, but had the same repeated notes, like [plays the main tune on the piano]. And in the middle section it goes [plays section ‘C’ on the piano]. There are repeated notes again, you see. And, of course, the entire rhythm of the thing must be in that ‘chink-chink-chink-chink’. That must keep up, all the way through.”
Besides having a wonderful melody, part of what makes “Sleigh Ride” special is its imaginative use of percussion and musical sound effects that transport the listener into Anderson’s snowy world. The main tune, with which “Sleigh Ride” begins and ends, is typically punctuated with the jingling of sleigh bells. One can practically envision snow piled among trees whizzing by during section “C”: the clop-clop-clopping of percussion mimics the sound of horses’ hooves, and dramatic pauses are followed by the crack of a whip. At the very end of the song, another pause is followed by a trumpet that simulates the whinny of a horse. According to “Leroy Anderson: A Bio-Bibliography” by Burgess Speed, Eleanor Anderson, and Steve Metcalf, “at first some trumpeters had a hard time with it, since it calls for a rather tricky half-valve glissando. But trumpet players the world over now are obliged to perfect it, since sooner or later, they know they’ll be called upon to produce it.”
Anderson completed his new 3-minute-long orchestra piece on February 10, 1948, and he soon presented it to Arthur Fiedler. “Sleigh Ride” made its debut as an extra song during a May 4, 1948 Boston Pops concert conducted by Fiedler. That same year, it was published by Mills Music, and it had already been recorded several times by 1949, including a mono recording by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops that was issued on red vinyl. Anderson himself first recorded the piece in mono on September 11, 1950, and re-recorded it in stereo in 1959.
In 1950, music publisher Jack Mills suggested an experiment that at first was not at first well received by Anderson: commission famed lyricist Mitchell Parish to add some words to Anderson’s music. Parish was no stranger to successfully adding words to established instrumental numbers, having written lyrics for Hoagy Carmichael’s classic “Stardust” in 1929, Peter DeRose’s “Deep Purple” in 1934, and Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” in 1939. Anderson’s fear was that, should the lyricized version prove successful, his orchestral version would be forgotten. Anderson agreed, and when Parish showed the lyrics to him, he was pleasantly surprised. He later explained to PBS, “Mitchell Parish is unusually good at [writing lyrics] because he has the ability, he’s written many lyrics to instrumental numbers, and this is quite a knack because you see when you write a song, the lyric writer has free rein; he’s usually the one who contributes the title and other things. But here, he was stuck with the title, he had the title already, and that was not only the subject, but he had to get the word ‘Sleigh Ride’ in somewhere, he had to fit that word in and he had to build the lyrics around it.” Parish’s lyrics masterfully described in words what Anderson’s tune had already done in music – a feat Parish would repeat six times over the years.
Even though the lyrics to “Sleigh Ride” do not specifically mention Christmas (but then, there are many traditional holiday songs that don’t), it has since become an integral holiday music piece. Part of its success is due to its dual heritage – it stands on its own very well as a purely instrumental piece, and it is also a delightful tune for singers to perform. In fact, according to ASCAP, it is the “only Holiday song written originally as an instrumental piece for a symphony orchestra.”
“Sleigh Ride” remains one of the most-played Christmas songs, and was recently listed by ASCAP as the ninth most-performed holiday song over the last five years.