Jingle, all the way!

The strange tale of James Lord Pierpont, 'Jingle Bells' and the Savannah connection

The historical marker outside the present site of Savannah's Universalist Unitarian Church

There hasn’t ever been a whole lot of dashing through the snow in Savannah. And in the 1850s, the winter climate was pretty much the same as it is now — not a one horse open sleigh in sight.

But that’s when James Lord Pierpont, who was organist and music director of the city’s Unitarian Church, first introduced a new song he’d written, all about a jolly ride across the drifts, in a sleigh pulled by a high–stepping equine with bells attached to its “bob tail.”

Yes, “Jingle Bells” has more of a direct connection to Savannah than Paula Deen.

Historically regarded as something of a rascal, the Boston–born Pierpont was the son of an abolitionist minister, not always the most popular thing to be in those pre–Civil War days. The family lived in Medford, Mass., five miles to the northwest.

In 1849, during the California Gold Rush, Pierpont abandoned his wife and children to try his luck at operating a dry goods and photography business in San Francisco. He failed, his merchandise burned, and he returned to Medford.

But wanderlust was in his blood – as a teen, he’d run away to sea to work on a merchant vessel – and when his brother John accepted a position as the minister of Savannah’s brand new Unitarian Church in 1853, James tagged along.

Tuberculosis claimed his long–suffering wife Millicent, who was still in Massachusetts with her father–in–law, not long afterwards. He’d never sent for her, or his kids.

In 1857, widower Pierpont married Eliza Jane Purse, the daughter of Savannah’s mayor.

He was already a published songwriter by then, having given the 19th Century a handful of happy polkas, minstrel tunes and popular songs with titles like “Ring the Bell, Fanny” and “I Mourn For My Old Cottage Home.”
It was, however, in Savannah that he debuted a song he called “One Horse Open Sleigh,” for the Sunday School’s annual Thanksgiving concert in 1857.

Rev. Pierpont – James’ brother – and the parishioners liked it so much, the Sunday School kids were asked to repeat it for the church’s Christmas pageant.

For many years, historians – at least, the historians who care about such things – have debated the exact origins of Pierpont’s ditty. Medford officially refers to itself as the “Jingle Bells City,” and claims that Pierpont wrote it there, on the upright piano in a local tavern, around 1850. He was, it is believed, reminiscing about the wintry wonderland of his youth, and the carefree sleigh rides he would take with his brother John and their friends.

There are reports of eyewitnesses from the time who remembered him sitting at the keys, playing the tune.

(To cast more doubt on this version of the story, it’s been pointed out by scholars that Pierpont was actually in California in that period, playing entrepreneur in the heady wake of the '49 Gold Rush.)

Savannah, of course, doesn’t see it that way, since it’s universally accepted that the song made its official debut at the 1857 Thanksgiving concert.A plaque near the present–day Unitarian Universalist Church, on Troup Square, commemorates Pierpont’s life and work in the city.

What is known for a fact is that the church, with its free–thinking ways, was shuttered in 1859, as the war loomed. John Pierpont went back to Massachusetts, but James – now the mayor’s son–in–law – remained in Savannah.

To the dismay of his family, no doubt, he joined the Confederacy, and served as company clerk for the First Georgia Cavalry and its Isle of Hope Volunteers.

Pierpont actually composed a handful of rebel rallying songs, including “Strike For the South” and “We Conquer or Die.”

“One Horse Open Sleigh” was re–published as “Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1859, and it grew in popularity. In 1880 – three years before Pierpont’s death – his son went to some lengths to renew the copyright (as “Jingle Bells”), making sure Pierpont’s name would be forever linked with the song. It has, however, long passed into public domain, and the Pierpont family never made any significant money off of it.

Pierpont moved his second family to Valdosta, Ga., where he taught music, and then to nearby Quitman. He died in 1893 in Florida, while visiting relatives.

At Pierpont’s request he was buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, alongside his brother–in–law Thomas Purse, who had been killed at the first Battle of Bull Run.

“Jingle Bells,” of course, has become a beloved classic, inexorably associated with Christmas. Which is interesting, because it never mentions the holiday at all – it’s a winter–fun song about, as one writer put it, “driving too fast and picking up girls.” It’s been called the 1850s’ equivalent of “Little Deuce Coupe.”

Here are Pierpont’s original 1857 lyrics for “One Horse Open Sleigh,” as recorded in the Library of Congress.

Note that the word “jingle” in the chorus is an imperative verb. He’s imploring the bells to jingle, not referring to them as “jingle bells.”

“Upsot” in this context means, more or less, that the sleigh tipped over. In British jargon, it also means perhaps the driver had put a little too much brandy in his egg nog.

“Two forty as his speed” refers to a horse trotting a mile in two minutes and 40 seconds. Not bad!

Historians are still scratching their heads over the identity of Miss Fannie Bright.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

And, of course, the “lost” verse:

Jingle bells

Batman smells

Robin laid an egg;

Batmobile lost a wheel

And the Joker took ballet, hey!

About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.
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