On Sunday the north-east got hit by its first snow storm, which worked out pretty well for me as I was filming a bit for this year's Mark Steyn Christmas Show (for a previous edition, see here) and it looked absolutely picture perfect winter-wise. Most people seem to think pre-Thanksgiving snow is a kind of aberration, but it's normal enough that the best-known Christmas standard about winter sleighing is, as it turns out, a Thanksgiving standard: "Jingle Bells". Because let's face it, nothing says Thanksgiving like a chorus of "Jingle Bells". This essay is adapted from my book A Song For The Season - and don't forget my own extra-jingly version of "Jingle Bells" with Miss Jessica Martin, one of 12 great tracks for your listening pleasure on our Christmas CD Making Spirits Bright. And Happy Thanksgiving!
Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way...
As well they might. Just in time for Thanksgiving, here comes, er, "Jingle Bells" - which was written not for the Yuletide season but, allegedly, for Thanksgiving. In Boston, in the fall of 1857, the city's leading music publisher, Oliver Ditson, introduced the world to a new song called "The One-Horse Open Sleigh". Before "White Christmas" and "Rudolph" came along in the Forties, before "Winter Wonderland" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" in the Thirties, the most popular secular seasonal song in the American catalogue was "Jingle Bells", written before the Civil War but such a potent brand a century later that it was still spawning bizarre mutated progeny with every new musical trend - "Jingle Bell Boogie", "Jingle Bell Mambo" and, of course, "Jingle Bell Rock".
I notice a lot of album sleeves credit the writing of "Jingle Bells" to "Anon." And you can see why they'd think that. It doesn't seem the kind of song you'd need a professional to write, and it's hard to imagine, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein, sitting down to rattle it off:
"Okay, we'll start off with 'Jingle Bells'."
"Great. So three separate notes right there."
"Nah, just the one note, three times."
"Gotcha. And then for the second line we'll need a rhyme for 'bells'."
"Nah, I was thinking we'd say 'Jingle Bells' all over again..."
"Okay, same words, but on different notes - maybe up a tone or something?"
"Nah, why knock yourself out? It's the same one-note phrase as the first line. And then for the third line..."
"Hang on, I'm still copying that first note out another five times. I accidentally modulated..."
"Don't go crazy. For the third line we'll go with..."
"Let me guess. 'Jingle...'?"
"Right, but this time we pull the old switcheroo and go with 'Jingle all the way'."
"Great. By the way, when we say 'Jingle Bells', is that a type of bell? Or is it an injunction - 'Jingle', comma, 'Bells'?"
Yet the song is not the work of "Anon". Unlikely as it sounds, a real live songwriter did sit down one day and write "Jingle Bells". His name was James Lord Pierpont and he wrote and published many other songs in his lifetime, among them "The Colored Coquette" and others lost to posterity, but a few that have survived, such as "Our Battle Flag", a paean not to Old Glory but to the banner of the Confederacy. Every song but "Jingle Bells" was a flop - and that "Battle Flag" number would be a hate crime to the tender sensitivities of today's youth.
But, if you're going to be a one-hit wonder, "Jingle Bells" is the one hit to have. That merry jingle you hear this time of year isn't sleighbells but cash registers ringing up Christmas albums from country to rap, almost all of which contain some version or other of James Pierpont's 150-year-old hit. He didn't live to benefit from the recording age, and by the time of his death in 1893, he was more or less penniless. Instead, he came from a wealthy family, and worked his way down to impoverishment.
Question: What's the connection between "Jingle Bells" and "I Can't Get Started", the 1936 song by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin, introduced by Bob Hope as a suitor who can't land Eve Arden despite his many accomplishments?
Answer: This -
I've flown around the world in a plane
I've settled revolutions in Spain
The North Pole I have charted
But I Can't Get Started
When J P Morgan bows, I just nod
Green Pastures wanted me to play God
The Siamese twins I've parted
Still I Can't Get Started
J Pierpont Morgan, archetypal American plutocrat, was the nephew of the J Pierpont who wrote "Jingle Bells". The Pierponts are an old family who can trace their roots back to 8th century France and Charlemagne. They came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and by the 18th century were established in the American colonies. One Pierpont helped found Yale, another helped found the Unitarian Church. But James Lord Pierpont, born in Boston in 1822, was a different kind of Pierpont. At the age of ten he was sent to school in New Hampshire, from where he wrote his mom a letter about a sleigh ride through the northern snows, the first recorded glimmer of his brightest idea. Four years later he ran away to sea aboard a ship called the Shark, which took him way down south to Latin America, thence to Honolulu and on to Oregon.
That was the first recorded instance of another recurring activity in Pierpont's life - running away. James was the son of the Reverend John Pierpont, Unitarian minister in Medford, Massachusetts, also poet, Abolitionist and Prohibitionist, and prone, on the last two subjects, to fulminate at length and at volume. James married a young lady from Troy, New York (hometown of the author of another 19th century seasonal blockbuster: "'Twas The Night Before Christmas"). He tried his hand at the grocery business and at insurance, but without success and returned to Medford.
In 1848, he ran away again, leaving his wife and children with the grandparents, and trying his luck in the California gold rush. His land deal disappeared with his pardnah, his dairy herd was sold out from under him, his photography business burned down. So back to Massachusetts, and his real interest: music. He began writing numbers in the genres of the day - polkas and minstrel songs - and they were professionally published in Boston. But it was time to run away again - this time to Georgia, where his brother had gone to be minister. As before, Millicent and the children stayed in Medford, and the Bostonian sheet music began identifying composer Pierpont as "a gentleman of Savannah".
How gentlemanly he was is a matter of speculation. Accepting a position as organist at his brother's church, James took up with a Southern belle who became his second wife. Unfortunately, he's believed to have taken up with her before his first wife had departed this mortal coil. At any rate, Millie passed on in 1856, and a year later James married Eliza Jane, an occasion followed very swiftly by the birth of a child and also by the birth of a new song:
Jingle all the way
Oh, what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh...
In that first version, it was "joy" to be had in the sleigh. "Fun" came later. And here's where the story turns murky. Where was "Jingle Bells" written? Medford claims it as its own and has a ton of anecdotage to go with the song: One day, James Pierpont went to the Seccomb boardinghouse, whose landlady, Mrs Otis Waterman, kindly allowed him to play the neighborhood's only piano, which belonged to one of her tenants, a local music teacher called William Webber. James sat down and, after some fiddling with the tune here and there, plunked out:
Whereupon Mrs Waterman pronounced it "a very merry jingle". At which point Pierpont got the idea to add words, and turn his jingle into a song about the jingly bells on the "cutters" - the one-horse open sleighs - that the local lads liked to race along Salem Street from Medford Square to Malden Square a century and a half ago. Hence:
Just get a bobtailed bay
Two forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack, you'll take the lead...
The Seccomb boardinghouse subsequently became the Simpson Tavern, outside of which for many years was an official plaque marking it as the birthplace of "Jingle Bells". Alas, one winter some fellow came dashing through the snow on a one-blade open plow, and the plow blade damaged the plaque and it had to be removed. Still, plaque or not, Medford claims the song as its own.
A couple of decades on, however, Savannah decided it'd like to cut itself a piece of the jingle action. Savannah doesn't really need another native-son songwriter: it's the birthplace of Johnny Mercer (see Song of the Week #89, #96 and #101), which is why Clint Eastwood's film of the Savannah-set Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil has an all-Mercer score. Nonetheless, Georgia jingle scholars pointed out that James Pierpont was certainly living down south at the time "Jingle Bells" was published.
Big deal, says Medford. He spent summers back in Massachusetts, and in any case the town's position is that he wrote the song back in 1850. As to the first point, why would you write a sleighing song in summer? As to the second, why would a fellow perpetually short of cash and lurching from one failed business to another sit on what he'd been told was a surefire hit for seven years?
The Savannah musicologist Milton Rahn asserts the Medford claim to be obvious nonsense and says "Jingle Bells" was written in a house, since demolished, near Whitaker and Oglethorpe Streets. But why would a Northerner reinventing himself as a Southern gentleman (and so indifferent to his Bay State roots that he'd all but abandoned his children) feel so nostalgic as to write a song for New England winters?
We'll never know for sure. But what I find oddest are the claims of Christmas Songs Made In America and many similar books that the song was written for "his father's Sunday School class on Thanksgiving 1857". I'm willing to believe that at Thanksgiving a young man's fancy turns to snow, at least in those distant days before Al Gore's global warming project sent the mercury rising. But no Massachusetts Sunday School is going to teach its charges a song whose lyrical preoccupations are racing, gambling and courting:
A day or two ago
I thought I'd take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side...
Now the ground is white
Go it while you're young
Take the girls tonight...
That's good advice, but not the kind you're likely to hear from your Sunday School teacher. It seems easier to take James Pierpont at his word. He wrote "Jingle Bells" not as a Sunday School song but as a "sleighing song":
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song...
That was almost a genre in itself back then, though nobody seemed to need any others after "Jingle Bells" established itself, after which all the others seemed to melt away like April snow. Incidentally, isn't "Miss Fannie Bright" the perfect evocative 19th century name for a courting song? Not to be confused with Miss Fannie Brice of Funny Girl fame, although The Barbra Streisand Christmas Album comes perilously close. On that album, Miss Streisand sings some songs painfully slowly and others so fast they're reduced to gibberish. "Silent Night" falls into the former category, "Jingle Bells" the latter, and the Fannie Bright verse comes off particularly badly:
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot...
"Upsot?" queries Barbra in best Brooklynese. In fact, Pierpont wrote it as "upset", which is the kind of non-rhyme poets of the day favored. I'm not sure I entirely get the point of the Streisand version. I dig Sammy Davis' nightclubby take and over the years I've warmed up to Sinatra's arrangement with a goofy Gordon Jenkins background spellalong shoehorned in - "I love those j-i-n-g-le bells" - but, Rat Pack-wise, I reckon Dino has the edge.
And so a song for a very particular north-eastern 19th century activity which most folks have never tried and never will has managed to remain the secular Christmas song most sung by Americans - and Canadians, Britons, and even French ("Vive le temps d'hiver"). The best part of a century later, Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish were still getting mileage out of a kind of son-of-"Jingle Bells":
Just hear those sleigh bells jing-a-ling
Come on, it's lovely weather
For a Sleigh Ride together
But ask not for whom the bell jingles, it jingles for thee. In 1859, the same year Oliver Ditson republished "The One-Horse Open Sleigh" as "Jingle Bells", the Unitarian Church in Savannah closed. James Pierpont's brother, like his father, was an ardent Abolitionist and, as the country headed toward war, the Reverend Pierpont found fewer takers for his message in Georgia. He returned to Massachusetts to join his pa. James, on the other hand, remained down south, and, when war came, not only joined the Confederate army but endeavored to provide it with an entire catalogue of marching songs, including "Strike For The South" and "We Conquer Or Die". His father, the Reverend John Pierpont, was by then working for the Treasury Department, and had taken his grandchildren - James' children by his first marriage - to Washington with him. Years later, Mary Pierpont recalled how kindly she'd been treated by President Lincoln on her visits to the White House as the granddaughter of a celebrated Abolitionist and daughter of a secessionist in the Confederate cavalry.
The Civil War marked James Pierpont's final break with the New England he'd hymned in his sleighing song. Afterwards, he worked at this, he worked at that, and carried on writing songs that went nowhere: I like the sound of "The Know-Nothing Polka", which may rank as his best title aside from "Jingle Bells". But it's also a not inaccurate summation of his business acumen.
Pierpont died in 1893 in Winter Haven, Florida, and asked to be buried in Savannah, where his grave at Laurel Grove Cemetery is decorated with a Confederate veteran's marker. The signs directing you to it, however, all bear the words "Jingle Bells", and his brother's old church in Savannah is now the Jingle Bell Church.
I love sleigh rides, though it helps if the one-horse open sleigh is a real sleigh and not, as it often is in my part of New Hampshire, a large crate on runners. But James Pierpont's advice still holds: "Go it while you're young." You may not have Miss Fannie Bright seated by your side, but o'er the fields you'll go, just as that ten-year old boy did at his school in the Granite State all those years ago. Happy Thanksgiving - and go it while you're young:
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!
If you've enjoyed Steyn's Song of the Week these last ten years, in print, audio or book form, you might like to know that he'll be doing a TV version of his weekly song celebrations as part of his new nightly extravaganza, The Mark Steyn Show. You can watch it from almost anywhere in the planet at any time of the day you like on whatever delivery system you so desire: TV or tablet, iPhone or incendiary Samsung - and entirely commercial-free, for a full hour, five nights a week. Aside from our Song of the Week, many other favorite SteynOnline features will be translated to television format - including Mark at the Movies, Ave atque vale and Mark's Mailbox.
We hope you'll join us - Monday to Friday, starting in just two weeks' time, on Monday December 5th. You can find out more about The Mark Steyn Show here.