The Valdosta Daily Times
Hard to believe the words “Dashing through the snow ...” have anything to do with a place that registers nearly 80-degree temperatures a few days before Christmas, but South Georgia does have a connection with the wintry “Jingle Bells.”
James Lord Pierpont, who composed the beloved holiday song, lived for a time in Valdosta and Quitman.
While much research and the Lowndes County 1870 census confirms that Pierpont, 48, wife Eliza, 38, and children Lillie, 16, Thomas, 8, Josiah, 5, and Maynard B., 4, all lived here, he did not write “Jingle Bells” while in Valdosta.
Meanwhile, at least two cities each claim credit for being the site where Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells.” Savannah, where Pierpont called home during the Civil War era, claims the song of “dashing through the snow” was written there, while Medford, Mass., which was Pierpont’s home during his years as a young man, claims it is the site where “Jingle Bells” was written.
In 1989, the then-mayors of both towns quibbled for the right of claiming to be the home of “Jingle Bells’” origin. Medford claimed the song was written in its Simpson Tavern in 1850, with a historical marker and an eyewitness to the composition as evidence of its claim, according to the website Savannah Online. Savannah notes that Pierpont obtained a copyright for the song under the title of “The One Horse Open Sleigh,” later re-titled “Jingle Bells,” while living in the Georgia city in 1857, the same year he married his second wife, Eliza Jane Purse, the daughter of Savannah’s mayor.
The Medford theory has been debunked by a contemporary Pierpont biographer, who is also a Savannah resident.
“In 1850, Pierpont was in California, not Medford,” says author Margaret DeBolt, via Savannah Online. “He was there during the Gold Rush, not as a miner but as a businessman, and was also trying to set up a photography shop in San Francisco.”
Both cities have historical markers claiming to be the birthplace of “Jingle Bells.”
As for Pierpont, his birthplace was New England, born to Unitarian preacher and abolitionist John Pierpont. He rebelled against his family, running away at the age of 14. He served as a deck hand with a ship named the Shark, before returning to New England.
In 1846, he married Millicent Crowe of Troy, N.Y. They moved to Medford, Mass., where they had three children. During this period, Pierpont also traveled to California, leaving his wife with his father in Medford.
Reports conflict on what happened next. Some claim Pierpont traveled to Savannah, while his wife remained in his father’s care. Others claim Pierpont traveled to Savannah following Millicent’s death in 1853. But come to Savannah, he did.
His brother, John, served as a Unitarian minister in Savannah, and James joined him. James played organ in the church and taught music. He made Savannah home and he was well accepted by the Southern city’s society. Pierpont married Eliza Purse, daughter of Savannah Mayor Thomas Purse. His second wife was related to the Pindar family of Valdosta, and to Valdosta dancer Myra Lott, according to an essay written on Pierpont by the late Valdosta historian Albert Pendleton for a Lowndes County Historical Society newsletter.
Of “Jingle Bells’” composition, Pendleton noted, “During the 1850s, in Savannah, young James wanted someone’s opinion of a new song he had composed, went north to Medford and went to a singer who had a piano and played it for her. She liked the ‘merry little jingle,’ and he copyrighted it in 1857, as ‘(The) One Horse (Open) Sleigh’ later ‘Jingle Bells.’ Some publishers today print the composer as anonymous.”
The singer was Mrs. Otis Waterman, whose “merry little jingle” comment reportedly led to the “Jingle Bells” words, according to virtualsheetmusic.com.
By the time of Southern secession and the Civil War, James L. Pierpont had completely abandoned his Northern roots and the abolitionist beliefs of his clergyman father.
While his father served as a Union army chaplain with the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteers, became a member of the Treasury Department and was a friend of the Lincolns, James “saw hypocrisy in the North’s anti-slavery stance since many made money from it,” according to Savannah Online. James Pierpont enlisted with the Confederacy, first as a clerk with the First Georgia Battalion which later became part of Fifth Georgia Volunteer Cavalry.
“It is likely that James saw limited action during his war years,” according to Savannah Online. “... James composed several patriotic songs during his war years, among them, ‘We Conquer or Die,’ ‘Our Battle Flag,’ and ‘Strike for the South.’”
After the war, Pierpont and his family moved to Valdosta, a relatively new Georgia town established in 1860. He worked as a music teacher here. Biographer Margaret DeBolt and researcher Milton H. Rahn, according to Pendleton’s essay, reported that Pierpont’s youngest son, Maynard, was born in Valdosta.
Some time after 1870, the Pierponts moved to nearby Quitman in neighboring Brooks County. In Quitman, he served as the Presbyterian Church organist, offered private piano lessons and became a music professor at the Quitman Academy, according to sources. He also reportedly composed the “Quitman March,” according to Pendleton. Pierpont’s daughter, Lillie Pierpont, became Quitman’s first librarian in 1880.
There is a gap as to what happened to Pierpont in the ensuing years but he eventually moved to his son’s home in Winter Haven, Fla., where he died in 1893. Originally, he was buried in Florida and was later moved to Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery.
During Pierpont’s life, “Jingle Bells” was not a popular song. With no religious theme, it was not played in church services. In truth, none of Pierpont’s three verses, nor the popular chorus, even mention Christmas.
“Jingle Bells” is a winter song more than a holiday song. And as one writer has noted, looking at the full lyrics, “Jingle Bells” is really a song about riding around in “a flashy vehicle, driving too fast, and picking up girls.” Or as another Internet commentator notes, “Jingle Bells” is the “19th century equivalent of ‘Little Deuce Coupe.’”
“Jingle Bells” was reportedly written to be performed at a Boston church for a Thanksgiving service and was so popular that it was repeated for Christmas. No local or area research, however, backs this account. Some accounts claim Pierpont’s original composition did not include the popular chorus, but one that was “less joyous and more classical, Mozart-like sounding.”
The song’s popularity grew through the years. After Pierpont’s death, it began appearing as an anonymous composition, but one of his sons renewed the copyright and restored Pierpont’s name as composer.
It was an early song recorded for the phonograph in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The song continued in popularity and, in 1943, became Bing Crosby’s eighth million-selling record, according to falalalala.com.