A rivalry has existed for nearly a century between two American cities regarding James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893) and his well-known composition, “Jingle Bells” or “One Horse Open Sleigh.” Both Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia claim that Pierpont wrote the song in their cities. This debate rarely addresses the proslavery politics of the composer who broke from the staunch abolitionism of his family (particularly his influential father and brother).
James was the son of Reverend John Pierpont (1785-1866), long-time pastor of the Hollis Street Church in Boston, and later pastor of the Unitarian Church in Troy, New York and then the First Parish Church in Medford, Massachusetts. Rev. Pierpont was a poet, abolitionist, author of widely used school textbooks, an unsuccessful Congressional and gubernatorial candidate on the Free Soil and Liberty party tickets (respectively)…in short, a progressive reformer who had a broad influence on many writers, poets, politicians, teachers and preachers of his day.
James inherited his father’s artistic creativity. But not his politics or any shred of his reformist zeal. Far from crusading for a better society, James was instead a free-spirit and adventurer who rejected abolitionism. In 1836, at the age of 14, when he was supposed to be at boarding school, James ran off and joined the crew of a merchant ship. He spent roughly 9 years at sea. By the time he got that out of his system, his parents were in Troy, New York. James caught up with them in 1845 and lived with them in Troy for a time. There, James met his first wife, Millicent Cowee, with whom he had two children.
In 1849, with the Gold Rush underway, James decided to leave his wife and children with his parents (by that time Rev. John Pierpont had taken up residence in Medford, Massachusetts) and James bolted off to San Francisco to become a prospector. In California, he met with nothing but misfortune and returned to his parents, wife and young children in Medford.
By this time, James was writing and publishing songs. One of his first was “The Returned Californian,” a semi-autobiographical and comical piece about the experiences of a prospector. Numerous compositions followed.
Meanwhile, James’s older brother, John Pierpont, Jr., had followed in their father’s footsteps and became pastor at the Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia. There, John, the New England abolitionist, led a congregation that collectively took a stand against slavery…a controversial group in Georgia at the time. In 1853, John asked his talented brother James to come down to Savannah and become the music director for the church. Again James left his wife and children with his parents. He headed off for Georgia, and although he would return to Massachusetts from time to time to visit, James had essentially broken his ties with home and family in the North. His wife died in 1856 of tuberculosis and he married Eliza Purse in Savannah in 1857. His children in Massachusetts were raised by their grandparents.
In 1857, James published a song called, “One Horse Open Sleigh.” It was published in Boston, although Pierpont was living in Savannah at the time. Two years later it was re-published as “Jingle Bells.” It caught on quickly.
As to the controversy of where it was written, it is long-standing tradition in Medford that Pierpont actually wrote the song in 1850, years before it was published and before he moved to Georgia. It was, according to Medford historians, inspired by the annual winter sleigh races in Medford. However, in 1985, the mayor of Savannah disputed the notion that Pierpont would sit on such a popular tune for seven years before having it published. The song, Georgians argued, must have been written when Pierpont was in Georgia while waxing nostalgic about winters in his native New England.
Naturally, this argument made folks in Medford unhappy. “In the words of Shakespeare,” said Michael McGlynn, mayor of Medford in 1989, “it is our intention to keep our `honor from corruption.’ We unequivocally state that `Jingle Bells’ was composed . . . in the Town of Medford during the year 1850.”
When all is said and done, no one can truly prove when or where the song was written.
Getting back to James’s story…in 1859, with sectional conflict heating up, the abolitionist congregation Unitarian Church of Savannah dissolved and Rev. John Pierpont, Jr. headed home for Massachusetts. As his brother departed, James the songwriter decided to stay in Georgia. When the Civil War erupted, James enlisted with the 1st Georgia Cavalry. He served as a company clerk and also wrote several popular Confederate patriotic songs, including “Strike for the South,” and “We Conquer or Die.”
In Massachusetts, his father, Rev. John Pierpont, Sr. became chaplain of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. Due to his advanced age, Rev. Pierpont was only able to serve with the 22nd Massachusetts for a few months. When he resigned, the founder of the regiment, Senator Henry Wilson, secured a position in the Treasury Department for Rev. Pierpont. It must have been distressing for the abolitionist Reverend and his family that son James was fighting for the Confederacy.
After the war, James Pierpont remained in the South, eventually taking up residence in Florida. He continued writing music but none of his many, many songs ever caught on like “Jingle Bells.”
[Sources: Miles, Sceurman, and Moran, Weird Georgia (2006), 219; Associated Press, “Staking a Claim to a Carol Georgians say ‘Jingle Bells’ is their song, not Medford’s,” The Boston Globe, December 25, 2003.]