Saturday 22 December 2012

One Horse Open Sleigh

Although "Jingle Bells" is considered to be a Christmas song, it was originally written for Thanksgiving.  Although it was published when its composer lived in Savannah, Georgia, it was written in when he lived in Medford, Massachusetts.  Although we know it as "Jingle Bells" it was originally titled "One Horse Open Sleigh".  And although the song has been popular for decades, originally it was not a hit.

James Pierpont, the composer of the song, was born in Boston, Massachusetts.  His father, an ardent abolitionist, took a position as pastor of a Unitarian Church in Medford, a suburb of Boston.  

James was not interested in being a pastor's son, however.  Not one to shy away from adventure, James ran away to sea at an early age, joining the crew of The Shark.  Upon his return, he married Millicent Cowee in the 1840's and they had three children.  However, James was restless and soon left his family to join the hundreds of prospectors in the San Francisco Gold Rush.  Nothing came of his attempt to strike it rich and he returned to Massachusetts.  

In 1850, inspired by the sleigh races on Salem Street in Medford, James composed "One Horse Open Sleigh".  The recurring line of "Jingle bells" was actually an order commanding the bells to jingle so that other carriage operators could hear one's approach at an intersection, an approach that would normally be silent in the snow.  The new song, however, did not catch on at first. 

Soon, its composer followed his brother, John Jr., to Savannah, Georgia where he had started a Unitarian Church.  While his brother filled the role of pastor, James became the organist.  His wife and children stayed behind with his father in Massachusetts.

James' wife died of Tuberculosis while he was in Georgia and he quickly remarried, this time to a Southerner named Eliza Purse, the daughter of Savannah's mayor, Thomas Purse.  They had a child together.

In 1857, James composition "One Horse Open Sleigh" was published.  In the meantime, the Civil War broke out and John Jr.'s Unitarian church, full of abolitionists, was forced to close.  John returned to the North, but James remained in the South.  He enlisted as a Confederate soldier, penning battle hymns as he fought on the battlefield. 

In 1859, "One Horse Open Sleigh" was re-released as "Jingle Bells".  Once again, however, it did not cause much of a stir.

James died in 1893 and is buried in Savannah, Georgia.  Both Savannah and Medford lay claim to the birth of the Christmas song "Jingle Bells".  Perhaps both cities are correct:  while the song's composer had his roots in the North, he made the South his adopted homeland.  However, the inspiration for "Jingle Bells" was definitely found in Medford, where the sleigh races used to take place in the 1800's.

Three years after James Pierpont's death, the Edison Quartette became the first to record "Jingle Bells".  In the 1940's Bing Crosby recorded the song.  It has since been recorded by everyone from the Beatles to Barry Manilow, from the Chipmunks to Luciano Pavorotti.  "Jingle Bells" is now one of the most recognized and recorded Christmas songs in history.    

P.S.  The word "upsot", at the end of the second verse, is the past participle of "upset".  

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