MEDFORD — Over snow-covered ground, a spirited young man takes a girl on a horse-drawn sleigh ride for a night of joyful singing through the countryside in one of the most popular American Christmas carols, “Jingle Bells.”
Although the old New England tune has been a favorite among listeners since its premiere in 1857, no one is quite sure whether James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893) wrote the song in Medford or Savannah, Georgia.
“By asking different questions, we can get a more multilayered story of ‘Jingle Bells,'” said Boston University lecturer Kyna Hamill.
She described his many world travels and how Boston minstrel halls influenced his famous composition during a lecture last week titled, “James Pierpont in Medford.”
“I’m trying to broaden the historical context of James Pierpont,” Hamill said. “He has a dynamic history. Over the course of his life, he had about 18 different professions.”
Pinpointing Pierpont’s location when he wrote the song is complicated by his wandering life. He lived at his father’s house on the upper side of Mystic Street in Medford between 1849-1857. Before that, he served as a clerk on the schooner Shark from 1842-1844, sailing to the Sandwich Islands and Tahiti. He owned a Daguerreotype photography shop in Troy, New York, in 1848, and moved his business west to San Francisco during the beginning of the Gold Rush. During his time in California, Pierpont also mined for gold and worked on a cattle farm.
Between 1852-1857, the self -proclaimed “professor” of music contributed some 13 songs to Ordway Minstrel Hall, a theatre that was located in the former Province House off of Washington Street, in Boston.
On September 15, 1857, “One Horse Open Sleigh” (as “Jingle Bells” was originally titled) was first performed by Johnny Pell in Ordway Hall. A day later, sheet music for “One Horse Open Sleigh” was being sold down the street at Oliver Ditson and Company. Pierpont made an estimated $4 for writing what would become a holiday classic.
“Sleigh songs were having an important moment in the 1850s. Sleigh bell songs were common,” Hamill said. “The songs would often exist in their parlor version and in the blackface version, where they’re put into ‘black’ dialect.”
Where was Pierpont when the song was written? His name appears on Medford census and tax records the year the song premiered. But ten days after the song’s debut, he married his second wife in Savannah, where he spent time as an organist at a Unitarian church, and later wrote songs for the Confederate cause during the Civil War.
Two years after “One Horse Open Sleigh” was first performed, it was re-copy written and the title was changed to “Jingle Bells,” most likely to save money on playbill printing.
More than a century and a half later, the song has over 19,000 recordings and is out of copyright, which is why it’s heard on countless radio stations and Christmas albums. But it’s place of origin is still up for debate.
“On a 1927 print, you can see how different the song is being offered to the public,” Hamill said. “There is an image of a white couple in a sleigh. The sleigh narrative of going out to the country was popular. Medford was one of those locations. It was sort of a courting ritual.”