The Connection Series | #3 | Jingle Bells
For years and years as a kid growing up, I’d been told multiple times, by different people that “Jingle Bells” was written in an old tavern right in my hometown - Medford, Massachusetts.
I even heard this from one of my very favorite teachers at Lincoln Junior High School in Medford that it was true and that there is even a plaque in front of Rossetti Optique in Medford Square.
As a little guy, in Jr. High that has always loved Christmas, I thought it was just so cool that this happened in my hometown. I was so proud, for years that this famous holiday song, Jingle Bells, was written right in the same place I lived.
Well, shortly after that, the next time I was in Medford Square, I was going to look for that Rossetti Optique on High Street and I found it, perched right there in plain sight on the foundation of the fancy vision store. So cool!
It's still there today, here's what it says:
In 1822, in Boston, James Lord Pierpont was born.
When James was age ten, he went to New Hampshire for boarding school but apparently that wasn't his cup of tea so he took on a job with a whaling ship crew four years later and then entered the Navy where he remained until age 21.
After the Navy, James returned to New York. It was not long after that when he was married and settled in Medford, Massachusetts where he and his wife Millicent raise three children.
During California Gold Rush, James went to San Francisco on his own seeking fortune, not in gold, but in photography, and so he left his wife and kids with his father and ventured off.
His photography shop was burned to the ground and all of his photo equipment was lost.
James' brother John moved to Savannah where he was a pastor at a Unitarian Church there.
It was in Savannah that James decided to follow his brother and became the organist and music director of the church. He gave organ and singing lessons in the community as a way to support himself. It was at this point in his life that he began writing music. His first composition, “The Returned Californian,” was published in 1852, and it described his experiences with the Gold Rush and his failed photography business in California.
5 years later, in August 1857, James published the song that would later be known as “Jingle Bells.” While it is said to have been penned in Medford, it was most certainly published in Savannah.
The original rendition:
Dashing thro’ the snow, In a one-horse open sleigh, O’er the hills we go, Laughing all the way; Bells on bob tail ring, Making spirits bright, Oh what sport to ride and sing A sleighing song to night.
Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way; Oh! what joy it is to ride In a one horse open sleigh. Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way; Oh! what joy it is to ride In a one horse open sleigh.
A day or two ago, I thought I’d take a ride, And soon Miss Fannie Bright Was seated by my side, The horse was lean and lank; Misfortune seemed his lot, He got into a drifted bank, And we, we got upsot.
A day or two ago, The story I must tell I went out on the snow And on my back I fell; A gent was riding by In a one-horse open sleigh, He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.
Now the ground is white Go it while you’re young, Take the girls to night And sing this sleighing song; Just get a bob tailed bay Two forty as his speed. Hitch him to an open sleigh And crack, you’ll take the lead.
The fact that there is no mention whatsoever of anything that has to do with Christmas in the lyrics makes it an intriguing mystery as to how this has become the #1 Christmas Song of all time. After all, he tells of a lively, joyful ride on a fast one-horse sleigh, racing drunk, with pretty girls along for the ride that ends in an embarrassing incident for the driver.
In 2016, Boston University scholar Kyna Hamill released her research for the Medford Historical Society, while she was unable to confirm where he actually penned the tune (in Medford or Savannah), she did find that the first public performance of “One Horse Open Sleigh,” later copyrighted as “Jingle Bells,” occurred at Ordway Hall in downtown Boston, near the corner of School and Washington streets.
For decades, and to no surprise, there has been a bit of a feud between this city in the North, Medford and Savannah in the South, over who first jingled all the way. The plaque in Medford clearly states that in 1850, one James Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells” at the Simpson Tavern that once stood there. It absolutely tickles me that Medford absolutely had to ensure that there was a documented witness, by adding the words, ..."in the presence of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who later verified that the song was written here."
You’ll also find a plaque in Savannah, Georgia, where Pierpont was living when he copyrighted the song.
What's more, it was published in late summer/early autumn so there was no apparent intention for the song to ever become associated with Christmas and thus the phenomenon of “Jingle Bells,” was something that James Lord Pierpoint never had the opportunity to realize in his lifetime.
It was after Pierpont got to Savannah, and after his first wife, Millicent had died, he married Eliza Purse who was the daughter of Savannah's mayor. The Unitarian Chuch congregation pretty much shut down during the Civil War because they had come out against the war and that was very unpopular. The family then became divided. Part of the family fought for the North; Pierpont himself fought for the Confederacy. Maybe that's a continued part of the of the feisty dynamic between Savannah and Medford.
What we do know for sure is that James Pierpont was living in Savannah, a place with little to no snow in Winter, when he copyrighted the song he wrote at one point in his life about fast sleigh rides, led by one horse, that took place in the snow banks of Medford, Massachusetts.
As an adult, from Medford, it matters little to me where this was written. In fact, in the period of time for when this was written there was much racism and uneasiness in society and people were fighting for things that we see differently today.
To me now, there is more to the actual nostalgic words of the song itself, now heard primarily during the most wonderful time of year, for those words were written undeniably about Pierpont's adventures as a young man, sleigh riding in my snowy New England hometown - Medford, Massachusetts.
"The Connection Series" is a blog-series that features viewpoints from the personal opinion of John-Michael Scurio, a local resident of Eureka Springs, creator, owner of this blog - www.iloveureka.com. This blog-series is dedicated to the nostalgic connections and tugs between John-Michael's current beloved home, Eureka Springs, Arkansas and his childhood hometown, Medford, Massachusetts. Please enjoy!