As a songwriter, I was interested in who was credited for many of these works. Last year’s blog delved into the history behind ten of the songs:
· “Silent Night”
· “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
· “Away in a Manger”
· “Jingle Bells”
· “O Holy Night”
· “Little Drummer Boy”
· “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”
· “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
· “Blue Christmas”
· “I'll Be Home for Christmas”
This year I’ll look at ten Christmas songs that are in the public domain. Because they were written before 1923 they can be publicly performed and even recorded without paying a royalty to a composer or publishing company. In some cases, the writer is unknown.
· "Angels We Have Heard on High" is an anonymous song based on a traditional French carol. The most common English version was translated in 1862.
· "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” was written by Benjamin Hanby who also wrote “Up on the House Top” as well as about 80 other tunes. Born in 1833, the American composer was also a teacher and pastor.
· "Joy to the World" (the Christmas song, not the popular Three Dog Night hit written by Hoyt Axton) was based on Psalm 98 from the Bible. Words to the song were written by Isaac Watts. Born in 1674 in England, Watts is said to have written about 750 songs and is known as the “father of hyms.”
· "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is an English carol. It was first published in 1780 as a chant and is thought to be originally from France.
· "We Three Kings" was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. when he was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania. Hopkins was a former journalist who also considered being a lawyer before deciding to join the clergy. The popular carol was written in 1857 for a Christmas pageant in New York City.
· "What Child Is This?" uses the melody of “Greensleeves”, a traditional English folk song. William Chatterton Dix wrote the lyrics in 1865. Dix was working for an insurance company when he became seriously ill and became inspired to write the song during his recovery.
· "Go Tell It on the Mountain" was one of the African-American spirituals collected by John Wesley Work, Jr., a choir director and teacher. Work was said to have played a part in composing the song, but he was born in 1871 while the song dates back to at least 1865.
· "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is based on the 1863 poem "Christmas Bells" by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863.
· "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" was based on a poem written by Edmund Sears who was pastor of the Unitarian Church in Massachusetts. The most common melody is credited to Richard Storrs Willis. Sears was born in 1810, and Willis was born in 1819.
· "Good King Wenceslas" was composed in 1853 by John Mason Neale (lyrics) and Thomas Helmore (music). The song is based on the life of a historical St. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia.