[Jingle Bells] Pierpont, James Lord. (1822–1893)

Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh

Boston: Oliver Ditson. 1859. 5 pages including illustrated cover. 4to, 13 1/4 x 10 1/2 inches, disbound; dampstaining, minimal wear.  The rare first edition under the title "Jingle Bells," synonymous with the Christmas holiday and one of the most performed and most recognizable songs in the world.

The author was the son of fierce abolitionist poet John Pierpont, but himself served in a Georgia cavalry unit for the Confederacy, and served as a company clerk.  His father, meanwhile, served on the Union side as chaplain of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. During the Civil War, Pierpont wrote Confederate anthems including “Strike for the South,” “We Conquer, or Die!” and “Our Battle Flag!” The songwriter remained in Georgia after the war and lived out his final years in Florida before his death in 1893.  His older sister, Juliet, married millionaire Junius Spencer Morgan, and their oldest child, John Pierpont Morgan, followed his father into the banking business and became one of the most powerful financiers of the Gilded Age. 

"A historical plaque in the Boston suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, claims that Pierpont wrote his famous tune while nursing a drink in the Simpson Tavern in 1850, a year after his father took over a nearby Unitarian church.  The date, if not the place, of the song’s composition is unlikely given that Pierpont probably wouldn’t have waited seven years to publish it and research by Boston University faculty member Kyna Hamill has found that he was still in California chasing gold at the time.  In 1985, Savannah erected an historical marker of its own across from the Unitarian church where Pierpont was music director at the time the song was published, and possibly soon after it was written in the city.  (Hamill surmises that Pierpont wrote the song in the early summer of 1857 while temporarily living in a Boston rooming house.)  One thing that is not in dispute is that Pierpont drew upon snowbound memories of sleigh rides and sleigh races in Massachusetts, not Georgia, when writing the song."

"Although 'Jingle Bells' is now a Yuletide staple, there is no mention of Christmas or any other holiday in the song.  Some historical accounts report that the tune was first performed for a Thanksgiving service at the church of either Pierpont’s father or brother, but the lyrics might have been too risqué for an ecclesiastical audience.  Given the songwriter’s rebellious nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that 'Jingle Bells' has a bit of a rebel-without-a-cause attitude.  The less-known verses of the song describe picking up girls, drag-racing on snow and a high-speed crash.  The lyrics 'go it while you’re young' in the final verse of the secular standard is hardly about a holy or silent night."

"The song may have been first performed in blackface.  When 'One Horse Open Sleigh' was first printed in September 1857, it was dedicated to John Ordway, a Boston doctor, composer and organizer of a troupe of white men performing in blackface called 'Ordway’s Aeolians.'  After his failed efforts as a Gold Rush prospector, Pierpont wrote one of his first songs, 'The Returned Californian,' in 1852 to be performed by Ordway’s minstrels, and it appears the same was the case for about a dozen of his subsequent songs, including 'Jingle Bells.'  BU Today reports that Hamill has uncovered a playbill from the September 15, 1857, show by Ordway’s Aeolians that lists a performance of 'One Horse Open Sleigh' by Johnny Pell, who was described as a member of the 'dandy darkies.'"

The later history of the song includes, of course, many celebrated performances and recordings, and it has the distinct honor of being the first song ever broadcast from space.  "Nine days before Christmas in 1965, the two astronauts aboard Gemini 6 had just completed a rendezvous with Gemini 7 when the crew suddenly gave a troubling report to Mission Control: 'We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit.  He’s in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio.  It looks like it might even be a … Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon.  Stand by one … You might just let me try to pick up that thing.'  The tense report of the unidentified flying object was suddenly broken by the sound of 'Jingle Bells' with 'Wally' Schirra playing a tiny harmonica accompanied by Tom Stafford shaking a handful of small sleigh bells they had brought along for the space voyage."  (Christopher Klein, History.com)

When the song was first printed by a Boston music publishing house in 1857, it was released under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.”  Two years later it was reissued with the more familiar title “Jingle Bells.”  Both early editions of this song are scarce; OCLC lists 2 examples of the 1857 printing titled "One Horse Open Sleigh", and only one example of this 1859 edition  - at the Morgan Library founded by his wealthy nephew. Reference: Dichter & Shapiro, page 145; Fuld, page 313. (20602)

Printed Music