It’s one of the more popular Christmas songs. It’s also a song that lends itself to all sorts of versions and lyrics. Back in my boyhood school days, classmate Carl Ivey would sing “Jingle Bells” come Christmas time. He’d alter the lyrics to go “Jingle bells, shotgun shells,” and from there memory fails me. Carl, however, was not the first fellow in Georgia to experiment with the words of this popular Christmas song.
Savannah resident James L. Pierpont composed the song and when he did he sowed the seeds for a controversy a century and a half later. Pierpont wrote his Christmas classic in the autumn of 1857. We know the song as “Jingle Bells,” but “One Horse Open Sleigh” was its original title. Pierpont, incidentally, wrote it as a Thanksgiving song and we thank him.
We can also thank Charlie Smith of Wrightsville for this Christmas column of sorts. Charlie does a great job when it comes to column ideas. Charlie emailed me a link to a story and the following note: “Tom, this is a story from ten or so years ago and M.H. Rahn has since passed away. M.H. was married to my first cousin on the Smith side of the family. Not only was he interested in history, mainly Savannah’s, but he also was a self-made millionaire. Started with a fruit stand on the old Bay Street road.”
Well M.H. riled up the folks in Medford, Massachusetts. Once upon a time “Jingle Bells” belonged exclusively to their city, until 1969 that is. That was when Medford, just outside of Boston, could claim the carol outright. And then M.H. Rahn linked the song’s composer to Savannah. ‘Twas a discovery that would set Medford and Savannah to feuding.
When the snow settled here’s what we know. James Pierpont served as the organist at Savannah’s Unitarian Church in 1857. Flash forward now. Rahn’s daughter is playing “Jingle Bells” in Savannah on the piano decades later. Rahn glances at the sheet music and sees a familiar name, Composer: J. Pierpont. Rahn knew of two J. Pierponts—a preacher and a fellow with musical inclinations and both lived in Savannah. The name on the sheet music, was it a mere coincidence?
Rahn had read letters John Pierpont Jr., pastor at Savannah’s Unitarian Church, had written from 1852 to 1858. The letters to Medford said brother James had come to Savannah as an organist and music teacher. Further research revealed James settled in Savannah.
As for making his discovery known, M.H. Rahn said, “I saw this as something to help us get publicity for the church.” Well it did that and a whole lot more. It started a controversy and oh what fun it was not. Savannah claimed it had originated this dashing Christmas classic. Up went a marker. The next time you are in Savannah go to the historic district. Across from Troupe Square where Habersham and Macon Streets intersect you’ll find a historic marker:
James L. Pierpont (1822-1893), composer of “Jingle Bells,” served as music director of this church in the 1850s when it was a Unitarian Church located on Oglethorpe Square. Son of the noted Boston reformer, Rev. John Pierpont, he was the brother of Rev. John Pierpont, Jr. minister of this church, and uncle of financier John Pierpont Morgan. He married Eliza Jane Purse, daughter of Savannah mayor Thomas Purse, and served with a Confederate cavalry regiment. He is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery. A prolific songwriter, his best-known “Jingle Bells” is world famous.
But hold on a minute. Nine hundred miles north up North they’re not laughing all the way. The Medford Historical Society claims that the town’s popular sleigh races inspired the song. (I suppose they were one-horse open sleighs.) In Medford, Massachusetts, you’ll find a plaque at 19 High Street in Medford Square. This plaque marks the birthplace of “Jingle Bells,” and claims Pierpont wrote the song there in 1850 at the Simpson Tavern.
Pierpont copyrighted the song in 1857, and the copyright date sits at the heart of the controversy. That casts doubt on the possibility that Pierpont wrote the song in Medford. By 1850 Pierpont served as the organist and music director of the Unitarian Church in Savannah. In August that same year, James Pierpont married the mayor of Savannah’s daughter. (How many Southern mayors’ daughters do you think will marry and move up North? How about maybe two in the history of mankind.)
An article (MSN.com December 2003) on this controversy posed a question: “Did Pierpont write it in Savannah as a piece of homesick, holiday nostalgia? Or did he compose it years before in Medford, not seeing the tune as a moneymaker until he drifted south?”
In 1985 Savannah erected a “Jingle Bells” marker across from the church and then-Mayor John Rousakis declared the tune a Savannah song. That didn’t sit well with the folks in Medford. Ill-tempered letters flew back and forth. “In the words of Shakespeare, it is our intention to keep our ‘honor from corruption,”’ Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn wrote in a 1989 letter to Rousakis. “We unequivocally state that ‘Jingle Bells’ was composed … in the Town of Medford during the year 1850!”
Quicker than bells on bobtail ring Rousakis fired back. “James L. Pierpont is still here with us,” noting the composer’s Savannah burial. “I am sure (Pierpont) will join us in spirit when we finally and formally proclaim Savannah, Georgia, as the birthplace of ‘Jingle Bells.’ ”
Ace Collins, author of the 2001 book Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, says he found more proof of Medford being the rightful birthplace while researching his chapter on “Jingle Bells.”
Collins found a New England newspaper from the early 1840s that mentioned “One Horse Open Sleigh” debuting in Medford at a Thanksgiving church service. Pierpont gave a repeat performance of the popular song at Christmas.
When it comes to which city deserves bragging rights, Collins does nothing to make spirits bright. He stays neutral. Pierpont may have written his song in Medford, said Collins, but Savannah made him realize its universal appeal. “Savannah was the key. If it can play in Savannah, where snow was a novelty, it can play anywhere.”
No one knows the definitive answer to this Christmas Carol mystery. The one person who can set us straight is no longer with us. Pierpont walked this green earth from 1822 to 1893. He ran away to sea at fourteen and later went to California during the Gold Rush and o’er the gold fields he went. During the Civil War, he joined a Confederate cavalry regiment in Savannah, an act in opposition to his family’s staunch abolitionist views.
James L. Pierpont apparently was a self-made Southerner and for sure a nomad but his one popular song would wander farther than he ever could. “Jingle Bells” you may recall was the first song broadcast from space by Gemini Six astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra. On December 16, 1965, they sent this report to Mission Control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit. I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.” The astronauts then produced a smuggled harmonica and sleigh bells and broadcast a rendition of “Jingle Bells.”
So, is Jingle Bells a song that’s out of this world actually a song of the South? Why not? Let’s lay claim to it and thank M.H. Rahn for his diligent research. As for James L. Pierpont he met a fate common to other songwriters. Among the many composers of songs walk those lonely souls known as one-hit wonders. Add James L. Pierpont’s name to the list. Pierpont passed away long ago and his song has since passed into public domain. The controversy, however, remains alive as it dashes through the snow up North and dashes through sunshine, pines, and oaks down South.
Pierpont’s song gets changed every now and then and I for one am not a fan of the singing dogs’ version of “Jingle Bells”—a sleighing song tonight that is not nor do I like hijacking Christmas carols and converting them to advertising jingles. But that’s a jingle of another sort and a column for another day.