Free bird James Lord Pierpont spent his life dashing through American history like it was his own one-horse open sleigh of adventure.
Born the son of a preacher, he became a Boston whaler, Navy sailor, feckless father, California dreamer, real-life rebel and Confederate cavalryman.
Pierpont also wrote songs.
He crafted bellicose but forgotten Dixieland war anthems and also one of the most familiar tunes in human history.
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Pierpont wrote the joyous winter jaunt “Jingle Bells.”
“He’d be a very fascinating subject to psychoanalyze,” Christopher Klein, a Massachusetts historian and authority on the world’s most celebrated sleigh ride, told Fox News Digital.
“He has a true rebellious streak in him.”
Yet the rebel’s song “Jingle Bells” is so embedded in mainstream culture that its first three notes alone are instantly recognizable to millions of people around the world.
“He’d be a very fascinating subject to psychoanalyze.” — Christopher Klein, historian
Frank Sinatra’s version of “Jingle Bells,” which he first recorded in 1948, is No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 this very week.
Pierpont’s composition is sandwiched between hits by contemporary superstars Taylor Swift and Doja Cat — right now, today — nearly 175 years after he wrote it.
“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms, released in 1957, retells the tale of “riding on a one-horse sleigh,” first published by Pierpont exactly 100 years earlier.
The annual Helms hit is No. 3 today on the American music charts.
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Two American cities, Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia, proudly offer competing claims as the birthplace of the timeless tune.
Almost everything we know about this beloved standard of American songcraft, however, is debated, wrong or misunderstood — including our faith in it as family-friendly Christmastime fare.
“Jingle Bells” was most likely conceived as the boastful tale of a fearless renegade chasing high-speed thrills in woods dark and deep “with a young lady by my side.”
A belle named Miss Bright made Pierpont’s spirits sparkle that night.
‘A delusive golden dream’
James Lord Pierpont was born in Boston, Massachusetts on April 25, 1822, to Mary (Lord) and Rev. John Pierpont.
His father was a Unitarian minister and a prominent abolitionist at a time when calls to end slavery poured from the pulpits of Boston.
Pierpont pursued personal glory.
He was 14 years old when he set sail on a whaling ship, then served in the U.S. Navy, returning at age 21 to start a family.
Dreams of adventure trumped fealty to fatherhood.
A belle named Miss Bright made Pierpont’s spirits sparkle that night.mjn
Pierpont chased fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849. He reportedly left his first wife, Millicent, and two children to live with his parents in Medford, Massachusetts, where his father was ministering.
The West Coast proved a “delusive golden dream,” he wrote in the 1852 tune “The Returned Californian.”
“Sheriff’s running after me with pockets full of writs,” he laments of his embarrassing flight from creditors and the law. “I oughter travel homeward but they’ll laugh at me, I know.”
Rather than face the music in Boston, Pierpont built a new life by making music at a Unitarian church in Savannah where his brother, Rev. John Pierpont Jr., was minister.
Pen and piano proved no match for the allure of sword and rebellion.
Pvt. Pierpont rode horseback for the Georgia cavalry after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He reportedly fought in the failed Confederate defense of Atlanta and Savannah against Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s federal forces.
The Southern soldier defied his family as well as his birthplace: Pierpont’s reverend father was a chaplain with the Massachusetts infantry fighting for the Union Army.
A bawdy tale of two cities
Pierpont wrote the music and lyrics to “Jingle Bells” in the 1850s, sometime amid his daring deeds on land and sea.
It was published in Boston in 1857, originally under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.”
The date and location of the song’s origin are both sources of considerable public dispute between Medford and Savannah.
“The music was copyrighted while Pierpont lived in Savannah,” the city’s tourism board, Visit Savannah, wrote in a statement to Fox News Digital.
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“Furthermore, Pierpont married a Savannah girl named Eliza Jane Purse, the daughter of Savannah Mayor Thomas Purse.”
Former Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn counters with a richly detailed origin story.
“The ‘Merry Little Jingle,’ which became ‘Jingle Bells,’ was a one-horse open sleigh ride from Malden Square to Medford Square, one straight line down Salem Street,” McGlynn told Fox News Digital.
Pierpont was joined on the journey by gal pal Fanny Bright, the former mayor said, when reckless speed forced them to tip the sleigh.
The friends were in a “jovial mood,” the mayor noted, perhaps fueled by liquid warmth on the frosty New England night.
They laughed off the accident, knocked on the door of tavernkeeper Mrs. Otis Waterman, and asked to use her piano.
“Who’s to say he didn’t write the song while living in California? I think we need to add San Francisco to the list.” – Professor Christopher Hendricks
“They penned the whole event into a song then and there,” McGlynn claims.
He added with an audible gleam in his voice, “Pierpont’s father was the minister here at the Unitarian church. So we know the story is true.”
Both cities may be wrong.
“Who’s to say he didn’t write the song while living in California?” Dr. Christopher Hendricks, a professor at Georgia Southern University in Savannah, told Fox News Digital.
“I think we need to add San Francisco to the list.”
Klein, the Massachusetts historian, offers a fourth option.
“The truth is that ‘Jingle Bells’ may not have been written in Medford or in Savannah — but in Boston,” he said.
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He cites recent research showing that Pierpont lived in a Boston boarding house in the summer of 1857, the same year the song was published.
‘Same old song of fast cars and girls’
“Jingle Bells” scholars appear to agree on several facts.
It is not a Christmas song, nor was it intended as one, they suggest. There is no reference to the holiday, or any holiday, or the birth of Christ.
The seemingly idyllic, homespun and family-friendly imagery of “Jingle Bells” belies its author’s maverick nature — and most likely his intent.
The version the public knows from constant radio and home soundtrack play each December includes only Pierpont’s first verse and chorus.
“Racing fast, a high-speed crash, a woman at his side. It’s the same old American song of fast cars and girls we know today.”
Three long-forgotten verses offer the scandalous tale of a young man and a young woman, alone in the woods, racing too fast and possibly intoxicated.
“Miss Fanny Bright was seated by my side,” Pierpont reveals in the second verse, while their “horse was lean and lank” and “got into a drifted bank.”
The narrator falls on his back in the third verse.
“A gent was riding by … he laughed as there I sprawling lie” — amused by the man perhaps too tipsy to right himself.
“Go it while you’re young; take the girls tonight,” Pierpont offers in the fourth and most salacious verse.
It suggests that the excitement and danger of a furious fast sleigh ride might fuel a young woman’s passions.
“This is the classic American story of 1950s drag racing, except he wrote it a century earlier,” said Klein. “Racing fast, a high-speed crash, a woman at his side. It’s the same old American song of fast cars and girls we know today.”
‘First musical interlude from space’
James Lord Pierpont died on Aug. 5, 1893, in Winter Haven, Florida. He was 71 years old.
He’s buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, his gravestone accompanied by a marker representing his service to the Confederacy in the Civil War.
“Jingle Bells,” among other claims to fame, “was the first musical interlude from space,” the National Air and Space Museum reports.
United States astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra transmitted the song back to Earth during the Gemini VI mission on Dec. 16, 1965.
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“The sound of a tiny harmonica, accompanied by small sleigh bells, could be heard playing the well-known holiday tune, ‘Jingle Bells,’” the museum notes, adding that “Schirra played the harmonica, while Stafford jingled the bells.”
Pierpont was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. It claims that “Jingle Bells” was first performed in Savannah at a Thanksgiving church service in 1857.
“It was so well received that the children were asked to repeat the performance at Christmas service and it has remained a Christmas standard ever since.”
Pierpont’s name enjoys nationwide recognition for another reason. He’s the uncle of John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan.
The famed American financier is the son of the songwriter’s older sister, Juliet.
Bob Dylan recorded the critically acclaimed song “Nettie Moore” in 2006, borrowing lyrics and structure from Pierpont’s 1857 composition “The Little White Cottage; or Gentle Nettie Moore.”
“Jingle Bells’ … was the first musical interlude from space.” — National Air and Space Museum
“Jingle Bells” is, for millions of people today, as familiar as their oldest friend and as naturally nostalgic as their childhood home.
Yet little of the cherished song was intended as it has been received.
“We all know ‘Jingle Bells.’ We have this Currier & Ives image of ‘Jingle Bells,’” said historian Klein.
“But when you read about it and read all the lyrics, it has a true James Dean rebel-without-a-cause attitude.”
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