With Controversy, Medford Insists is Birthplace of Famous Holiday Tune
- Ron Giovino
My Sirius radio kicked back on this week with an all XMAS music station. The car thermometer said 65 degrees and the radio was blaring “Jingle Bells” !!! Where am I, Orlando, Florida?
Speaking of that song…
Medford celebrated its annual pride of being the birthplace of “Jingle Bells” this week with holiday celebrations at city hall. According to Wikipedia on the web, “Jingle Bells,” originally “One Horse Open Sleigh,” is one of the best known and commonly sung secular Christmas songs in the world. It was written in 1857 by James Pierpont (1822–1893) to be sung at a Thanksgiving program at his church in Savannah, Georgia. Some reports say Pierpont wrote the song while living in Massachusetts but the copyright was granted in 1857, while he was serving as the organist for a Unitarian congregation in Georgia. It was repeated at Christmas due to its instant popularity. The song has been translated into many languages. It was originally created while Pierpont sat in a tavern over on Salem Street watching the highly acclaimed sleigh races. We are convinced that this song is based on the experiences Pierpont had while in Medford.
According to the mymerrychristmas.com website, James Pierpont was a defiant youth strays from his family, rebelling against the teachings of his minister father, and wanders the land only to find fame as the composer of a popular song about going fast and picking up girls. When you think about it that way, Medford was quite the hot spot back in the day. Pierpont brought the world “Jingle Bells” in the middle 19th century.
It is a romantic story that predates Elvis by a hundred years. Too bad it is not entirely true.
The merry tune of “Jingle Bells” is perhaps the most recognizable of all Christmas music. Often it is the first holiday song learned by children. Though by strict definition not a Christmas carol, it is one of the top twenty-five songs in the history of recorded music. It is also the source of modern-day controversy.
Written by Pierpoint sometime during the late 1840s or early 1850s, “Jingle Bells” was publicly performed for a Thanksgiving program at the Savannah, Georgia Unitarian Universalist Church in 1857 where Pierpoint was the organist. His merry little tune proved so popular that it was requested for the Christmas program at the church a month later. From there, its fame grew. That is about all the facts about Pierpoint and the song that historians can agree upon.
Pierpoint grew up in New England, where winter activities in the 1820s and 1830s included the “one horse open sleigh.” He was the son of an abolitionist minister but never lived with his parents long enough to adopt their views. A runaway at age 14, Pierpoint began a vagabond career that took him over seas in the Pacific, to the California Gold Rush and eventually back to Medford, Massachusetts where he married and had several children. His wife died in 1853 and Pierpoint traveled south to Savannah, Georgia where his brother John was also a minister. There he married again and had a second family.
Many historians are divided over the character of James Pierpoint. To some, he was a maverick who traveled the land, abandoned his family on several occasions and who possessed little talent for composing music. To others, he was a tragic individual who carried a nostalgic memory from his youth and turned it into a perennial holiday favorite.
From his hometown in Medford, the claim was made that “Jingle Bells” was written in Simpson’s Tavern in 1850. A historical monument marked the spot and listed witnesses who apparently heard Pierpoint perform the tune at the tavern piano while reminiscing of the Salem Street sleigh races of his youth. According to local history, Pierpoint evidently tucked his written copy of Jingle Bells away in a chest where he later found it after he had moved to Georgia in the late 1850s.
But folks in Savannah, Georgia do not see it that way.
Pierpoint made his home there after 1853. He fought for the Confederate cause during the Civil War (writing several forgettable patriotic songs in the process) and was buried there. Their biggest claim to fame, however, is that “Jingle Bells” was copyrighted there in 1857 after the famous church performances. In making the case of ownership over Pierpoint and Jingle Bells, local historians point out that James Pierpoint was in California in 1850, thus he could not have been in Medford for the creation of the song. Though Savannah sits in the heart of balmy Dixie, where nary a snowflake falls, they claim “Jingle Bells” as their own and in 1985 placed a memorial of their own on the former site of the old church.
That is when the mayor of Medford took them to task.
“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 the mayor of Savannah. “We unequivocally state that ‘Jingle Bells’ was composed … in the town of Medford during the year 1850!”
More recently, historians have unearthed new evidence suggesting that Pierpoint may have played Jingle Bells for another church crowd in the mid 1840s — in Medford.
Regardless, it was probably never the intention of James Pierpont to author a holiday classic. From all accounts, it appears he never really made any money off of his copyright on the work. It has survived for generations on the simple premise that it is a snappy tune, easily learned and infectiously memorable
Why Jingle Bells?
Every person traveling on a highway with a sleigh or sled drawn by a horse or other animal was to have at least two bells attached to the harness or to the sleigh or sled in such a manner as to give ample warning sound”1
“Jingle Bells” was the first song broadcast from space, in a Christmas-themed prank by Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra, December 16, 1965. Contacting Mission Control with a report.
“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.”
A lot to be proud of…