How 'Jingle Bells' by the Singing Dogs Changed Music Forever
Let's, for a moment, consider "Jingle Bells" as performed by the Singing Dogs.
With jaded, 21st-century ears, it's easy to dismiss as Yuletide kitsch. It topped a 2007 survey of most-hated Christmas songs, but there was a time when listeners marveled at it—Dogs! And they're singing!
It's time we give the Singing Dogs their due. Created in Denmark in the early 1950s by a self-taught ornithologist and released in the U.S. in 1955, the record marks a turning point in how we listen to music. I'll explain.
The late '40s and early '50s were a heady time for music recording, thanks largely to the defeat of the Nazis. Germans had perfected magnetic tape recording and they kept it under tight wraps. Live-sounding broadcasts of Hitler's speeches confounded the Allies: How could der Fuhrer be in so many locations at once? Besides having the capability to run for longer stretches of time than the phonograph (allowing for uninterrupted stretches of propaganda), the new tape technology had much higher fidelity. Previously, broadcasts of recordings sounded like recordings; the new tape recordings did not. Toward the end of the war, American soldiers retrieved some rather sophisticated tape recording machines, known as Magnetophons, from an abandoned radio station outside of Frankfurt. Mystery solved.
Perhaps most revolutionary about the new technology was the ability to cut, splice, speed up and slow down tape, which allowed for audio illusions that were impossible to create before. The technology led to a post-WWII frenzy of experimentation. At the highbrow end of things, academics in Paris immersed themselves in tape music compositions. In the U.S., Les Paul and his then-wife Mary Ford worked in a more populist vein, baffling radio audiences with multiple layers of voices and guitars. In the middle of the cultural spectrum were the Brits, whose haunting new sound effects added another dimension to radio dramas.
In Denmark, the makers of the Singing Dogs record embraced this new sonic world with equal giddiness. The record was the work of Carl Weismann, a pioneer in bird song recording who convinced Danish State Radio to furnish him with some decent equipment.
Dogs often chased Weismann from private property during his field recordings, leaving the day's results marred by angry barks. On a lark, he took razor to tape to edit out the barks and then painstakingly spliced them together. He tweaked tape speeds to correct the pitches. The arduous process of achieving even a simple melody probably shortened many composers' forays into tape music. (Today, it just takes a few minutes with the right apps.)
Before "Jingle Bells," Weismann recorded a collection of traditional Danish songs assembled from dog barks for a children's TV program in 1949. This places him right in the thick of early tape music experiments; one year prior, Pierre Schaeffer invented musique concrete—the manipulation of non-musical sounds into music—a movement that presaged record scratching and sampling.
The Journal of Acoustic Ecology refers to Weismann as "effectively the first composer of musique concrete in Denmark." The description doesn't exactly fit, as the Singing Dogs run afoul of some key points in the rather elaborate philosophy of musique concrete (Schaeffer tended to talk about composing more than actually compose). But Weismann's record did use many of the same ideas and techniques.
I consulted a few 20th-century music experts, and most were impressed by Weismann's ingenuity, given the early stage of tape recording—though none predicted that the experimentalist canon would be calling anytime soon.
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.
It doesn't seem Weismann, who died in 1999, had any real musical aspirations. And it's possible that he was unaware of the musique concrete movement, making him something of an outsider artist.
On the other hand, it appears that Schaeffer knew of the Singing Dogs. The ideas of musique concrete had been mangled to the point where "a dog was very soon turned into a performing dog," he decried in 1967's "Solfege De L'objet Sonore," a sort of audio manifesto of musique concrete. The sounds of a dog barking Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" accompany the passage. "Obviously, [such attempts] could only draw the scorn of specialists."
The Frenchman's diss probably didn't wound Weismann much. Once "Jingle Bells" broke big, he got out of the dog music business altogether. The royalties financed far-flung bird recording trips. According to a warmly written obituary in the Journal of Bioacoustics, Weismann was particularly interested in how the sounds of certain bird populations changed over generations. Despite no formal training, Weismann holds an esteemed place in ornithology, and his 60 years' worth of field recordings are stored in the British Library National Sound Archives.
In the end, Weismann and the dogs have the last laugh. Schaeffer announced his retirement from composition in 1960, but the Singing Dogs faithfully return every year—whether we like it or not.