If you listen to holiday music, you’ve heard Jingle Bells. It’s been recorded by just about everyone. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters sold more than one million copies of the song in 1943. It’s even been barked out by dogs. In fact, during 1890-1954, Jingle Bells was one of the top 25 most recorded songs in America. So . . . who wrote Jingle Bells?
His name was James Lord Pierpont. He was an organist and choir director, and he wrote the song for a Thanksgiving church service during the 1850s. Precisely when and where he wrote the song — both Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia claim it — is unclear, but the sheet music was first published in 1857. It was originally entitled The One Horse Open Sleigh.
It’s amazing that a song written before the Civil War could still be popular more than 150 years later. How often do you hear anyone singing Camptown Races? And who even rides in horse-drawn sleighs these days, or uses words like “upsot”? But Christmas is a time when tradition reigns. People eat traditional foods, sing traditional songs, and put up Christmas trees and Christmas stockings, just as they did 100 years ago. We like those traditions because they connect us to our past and help us to remember our childhood.
Even though its context is traditional, Jingle Bells remains fresh and appealing. It’s got a bouncy rhythm and words that are easy to remember. And, although people tend to forget it, Jingle Bells tells the story of young men vying for the affection of Miss Fannie Bright, who apparently liked horses and sleighs. It’s even got some pratfall humor — consider the third verse, which unfortunately almost no one ever sings:
A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.
With a verse like that, I’m guessing that James Lord Pierpont might not mind that many boys at heart hear the Jingle Bells melody and think of Batman, the Batmobile, and Robin laying an egg.