For years, the bells remained hidden. Forgotten at the bottom of the cedar chest, buried beneath a red plaid wool stadium blanket, two angora collars, several pieces of handmade lace, and my grandparents’ wedding photo, their silence was ensured.
Because the lid to the chest was kept locked, I needed help each birthday and Christmas to open it, so that I could retrieve the small, beaded bag that held my growing collection of silver dollars.
One year, I asked permission to look through the other treasures hidden away in the depths of the chest. Out they came: the blanket, the lace, the photos. As I moved a small box of jewelry, I heard a faintly musical jingle. Pulling at the sound, I lifted up a cracked leather strap with a dozen or more bells attached. Delighted, I gave the strap a shake, and then another.
Hearing the racket, my mother came to see what I was doing. When she saw the bells, she grew nostalgic. The harness strap and bells had belonged to her grandfather. They didn’t have a sleigh, but they did have a homemade box sled, and they had a horse. During the horse’s respite from field labor, he contributed to winter festivities: pulling children (and the occasional adult) along the roads. Despite the sled’s plain, homespun nature, my mother confessed she felt like the fanciest lady in the world during those rides: transported, for a time, into a world of elegance and beauty.
Because I took such delight in the bells, they no longer lived in the cedar chest. They moved into a box filled with decorations, and made an appearance every Christmas: sometimes on the front door, sometimes in the dining room below the traditional wreath, or sometimes at the foot of the stairs. Always, they were displayed in such a way that it was possible to give them a shake, and smile at the sound of the bells.
Finding the bells impressed me greatly: so much so that, from that time forward, my favorite songs and carols always involved bells — “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” based on Longfellow’s poem; the Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney version of “Silver Bells; the Leroy Anderson orchestral gem “Sleigh Ride;” and, of course, “Jingle Bells.”
Like “Sleigh Ride,” “Jingle Bells” originated less as a holiday tune than as a seasonal one. Written by James Lord Pierpont and published in 1857 under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh,” it reflected the culture of the time.
Prior to the coming of the automobile, New Englanders added straps of bells to horses’ harnesses as a way of avoiding collisions at blind intersections. A horse-drawn sleigh in snow makes almost no noise, so the phrase originally may have been sung as an imperative: “Jingle, bells!”
Today, my favorite version of “Jingle Bells” is sung by a pair who call themselves Unorganized Hancock. Miles and Garrett Sullivan live in Rumford, Maine, where I came to know them through their dad’s blog, Sippican Cottage. Today, Miles is twenty, and Garrett is twelve. Although I refer to them as boys in the title, they’re edging toward life as young men. Home-schooled, they’re dedicated, funny, literate, and obviously talented.
Miles and Garrett Sullivan ~ Unorganized Hancock
Their dad, Gregory Sullivan (sometimes known as Sipp), is a fine writer and a fine woodworker. I bought this flame birch table from him a few years ago: partly because it’s unutterably beautiful, and partly because he called it his Evangeline table: a reference I couldn’t resist.
His kids started making videos about three years ago. Last February, Greg offered a little history to his newer readers:
Way back when, reader Dave demanded that the kids play a form of Stump the Band, and offered them money if they would do it.
He was as good as his word, and many people have followed his lead and supported the kids via our Tip Jar over in the right hand column, for which we are very grateful. Unorganized Hancock performs using equipment purchased by my readers. They wouldn’t be able to perform at all, otherwise. It’s really as simple as that. In a large way, you’ve all had as much to do with whatever they’ve been able to accomplish as I have.
We got away from true Stump the Band, because there was always a hint of hostage video in the kids’ eyes while I was recording them. I didn’t want anything to be forced. The Spare Heir is still only eleven, and he was only eight years old in some of the earliest videos we made of him playing the drums.
But that wasn’t truly the birth of Unorganized Hancock. With apologies to my wife and her lady parts, two-and-a-half years ago, this was the birth of Unorganized Hancock.
Yes, they’re a little off key. Never mind that — check out the drumming, and the stage presence.
As the months passed, their skills developed, and their repertoire expanded. I was tempted to add their version of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s “Minor Swing,” but decided on this Brubeck number from the 1959 album, Time Out. Some may be interested in these technical details:
The music was learned and arranged almost entirely by ear. The drummer listened to the song a few times, then sat down and beat it out of his stripped-down Pearl drum kit. Using his Pro-Mark Cool Rod jazz sticks, he’s able to play the drums quietly and with the greatest finesse.
The guitar player was playing an SE Special Stratocaster in Brown Sunburst for the rhythm guitar and a Epiphone Les Paul Special 100 Black for the lead. The amplifier being used was a Fender Mustang 3 on a clean jazz setting. The Bass was overdubbed by the guitar player using a G&L L1000 Electric Bass. The recording was made on a Tascam DP-008, and mastered using the Cyber Acoustics Subwoofer Satellite System for speakers.
See what dedication, practice, and supportive parents can do?
More treats have followed, including this version of “Jingle Bells” that was animated by Garrett, using a free version of Adobe Flash Animation Software. The video’s a delight: cheerful, a little quirky, and thoroughly modern.
I’ve enjoyed it so much, I thought I would share it. It’s one more bit of evidence that there still are good things happening in this country, however hidden they may be. Watching this latest chapter in the boys’ story, and tapping my toe along to their music, I can’t help thinking, “God bless us, every one.”
As always, comments are welcome.
For more on Unorganized Hancock, you can visit their Facebook page here, where you’ll find such treats as this photo of a very young drummer.