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New England Song Series No. 3:

The Story of "Jingle Bells"

By Roger Lee Hall

One of the most popular songs heard during the Christmas season began not for that holiday but as a winter song with the title,"The One Horse Open Sleigh" (original sheet music cover shown above, published in 1857 by Oliver Ditson in Boston).

According to the book, Boston Curioisities (page 173), this information is provided:

"Jingle Bells" was written by Medford [Massachusetts] resident James Pierpont in 1850, inspired by the annual one-horse open-sleigh races on Salem and Pleasant Streets between Medford Square and Malden Square. Pierpont penned the racy little ditty in Simpson's Tavern, a boardinghouse that had only one piano in town.

This is interesting details about how the song was written but unfortuanetly the two authors (Bruce Gellerman and Erik Sherman) don't provide any source for this information. Two years later, in 1859, the title was changed when it was reprinted with the title:

"Jingle Bells, or The One Horse Open Sleigh"

James Lord Pierpont was born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1822 and died in Winter Haven, Florida in 1893. He had a rather unusual life, coming from a strict New England Unitarian family who were against slavery. He moved to the South and was an organist in a church in Savannah, Georgia. Against his family's wishes, he supported the Confederate cause, writing several songs in support, including "Strike for the South" and "We Conquer or Die." It has been reported, though not proven, that he wrote his popular winter song for his father's Sunday School class for Thanksgiving and it proved so popular that it was sung again at Christmas time. One of Pierpont's friends called the song -- "a merry little jingle."

These are the original lyrics and spellings for the first two of the four verses:

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 tonight.

Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh. [repeat four lines]

2. A day or two ago
I thought I take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seem'd his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we, we got up sot.

Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh. [repeat all four lines]

After he wrote the song Pierpont paid little attention to it until the Salem Evening News printed a story about it in 1864. Then he accepted credit for writing "Jingle Bells." There has been speculation that Pierpont borrowed lines from a Stephen Foster minstrel song but that has remained unproven.

James Pierpont's uncle was the famous wealthy New York financier, John Pierpont Morgan, founder of the famed Pierpont Morgan Library.

Though he died in Florida (ironically in the same city where the Boston Red Sox used to have their spring training camp), James Pierpont was buried in Savannah, Georgia in Laurel Grove Cemetery. There was a marker placed in Troup Square in Savannah to honor him --



Did Pierpont write "Jingle Bells" in Medford, Massachusetts or Savannah, Georgia? Both places make claim to the song's origin. Yet it seems likely that he wrote the song in Medford where snow was commonplace rather than in the warmer climate of Savannah. This marker is located at 19 High Street in Medford:

"Jingle Bells" was not very popular when it was first published in 1857. Though it was reprinted in 1859, it took many years to became one of the most popular winter songs.

Among the earliest recorded versions of the song were on music boxes and other mechanical music devices.

When did it start to become popular as a Christmas song?

That happened first with the spread of phonograph records and later on radio, which allowed the song to be heard by a nationwide audience.

The following list of recordings comes from an entry at Wikipedia:

"Jingle Bells" was first recorded by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898 on an Edison cylinder.

In 1902, the Hayden Quartet recorded the song.

In 1935, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra reached No. 18 on the charts with their recording of "Jingle Bells."

In 1941, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Ernie Caceres and the Modernaires on vocals had a No. 5 hit with "Jingle Bells" on RCA Victor.

In 1943, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded "Jingle Bells" on Decca which reached No. 19 on the charts and sold over a million copies.

In 1951, Les Paul had a No. 10 hit with a multi-tracked version on guitar.

In 1955, Don Charles, from Copenhagen, Denmark, recorded a novelty version with dogs barking to the melody of "Jingle Bells," which sold a million copies in 1955.

Among all these recordings, it was Bing Crosby with The Andrews Sisters who made the song the most popular. Their 1943 recording is the one most often heard today during the Christmas season in the U.S.A.

One hundred fifty years after it was published as "Jingle Bells," there are millions of listeners who know and love this song, even though it makes no mention of Christmas in its lyrics.

Yet it does evoke what many people think of as a nostalgic Christmas from the past -- a winter scene riding through the snow and singing...

Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
Oh what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh!

One does have to wonder slightly if the last two lines may have been written a bit sarcastically. I'm not about to sell my car to find out, but I would imagine riding in an open sleigh during a New England winter would be comparable to driving a convertible with the top down in the middle of winter. Cold, windy and covered in snow!


Much of the above information was gathered from these books:



A New England Christmas CD





"NEW BETHLEHEM" - Christmas Music in New England
(AMRC 0010)

There are carols, hymns and songs on this CD, including "Jingle Bells," (played on a beautiful Regina music box and sung on a Bing Crosby radio program). The CD is performed by various musicians.



Other CDs With New England Christmas Music

Here are a few other recommended CDs with New England Christmas music:


Christmas Music in America


Joy of Angels:
Shaker Spirituals for Christmas and the New Year




Carols From the Old & New Worlds, Vol. 2 --
The Pro Arte Singers, Indiana University Children's Camber Choir,
Paul Hillier, director




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