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“The story I must tell”: Jingle Bells in the Minstrel Repertoire

  • Kyna Hamill


The narrative works extremely hard to convince through evidence: we have a date, an eyewitness, and the events that inspired the song's conception. Since it is written in bronze and mounted on stone, the story seems fixed and immovable. However, cracks have begun to form in the beloved “Jingle Bells” narrative, and as with many such sentimental stories, we find there is always more to uncover. This essay confronts one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time: “Jingle Bells; or, The One Horse Open Sleigh,” whose history has usually been told in relation to a singular event—“Where was it first written?” The answer depends on where you ask, since both Medford, Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia lay claim to being the song's city of origin. Commemorative plaques can be found in both cities, and this musical North–South discord carries on to this day.

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1. In the vertical files of the Medford Historical Society & Museum, there is a folder with the following caution: “Savannah Generated James Pierpont Information—beware!” The folder includes articles between 1946 and 2012 with headlines such as “‘Jingle Bell’ Wars,” “Is ‘Jingle Bells’ Really a Song of the South?,” “‘Jingle Bells’ Written in Medford,” and “‘Jingle Bells: The Song That Started a Feud.” Note: Savannah's plaque fell during Hurricane Matthew, 8 October 2016, and has not yet been replaced.

2. Gladys N. Hoover, “‘I Have a Song in My Head’ said Medford Man and ‘Jingle Bells’ was Born,” Daily Boston Globe, 22 December 1946, A3.

3. Most journalistic articles on the song are dated in late December, to coincide with Christmas-themed general-interest stories.

4. Davis, Tracy C., “Nineteenth-Century Repertoire,” Nineteenth Century Theatre & Film 36.2 (2009): 628 , quote at 24.

5. Mahar, William J., Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 41. (Mahar here is quoting from the original 1984 publication of Bob Winans's “Early Minstrel Show Music, 1843–1852” [95]; in the 1996 reprint [see note 64], this quotation appears on 160.)

6. From the New York Clipper, 26 December 1857, 6: “The Minstrelsy business has proved one of the most profitable sources of revenue to those who cater to the tastes of the amusement loving community of this as well as other large cities, and, therefore, it is not to be wondered at that managers are making gradual innovations upon the regular dramatic profession.”

7. Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 171.

8. In a letter to his father from San Francisco on 2 June 1851, James wrote how he had recently suffered a series of occupational misfortunes in the space of a month: these included his daguerreotype studio being burned down, with the loss of all its contents; losing a position as a quartermaster on a ship, which would have brought him back home; and getting into the dairy business, which lasted only two days until he was let go. He writes: “What should I do next? (That is a question I have often asked myself, by the way).” John Pierpont Papers (ARC 726), Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (hereinafter PML), box 9, folder 37.

9. The Library of Congress has digitized his sheet music under “James Pierpont,” “Jas. Pierpont,” and “J. Pierpont”; these may be accessed via

10. Lott, Love and Theft, 157, 174.

11. James Lord Pierpont was born in Boston in 1822 and resided with his father in Troy, NY and Medford, MA. His father was the Unitarian Minister Rev. John Pierpont Sr, whose difficult personality and controversy with the Hollis Street Church in Boston made him a public figure. In 1845, Rev. John Pierpont Sr was serving in Troy, NY, and it was here where James married his first wife, Millicent “Millie” Cowee on 4 September 1846. John Sr was then appointed to the First Parish in Medford in August 1849 and built a house for his family on Mystic Street. James, Millie, and their two children followed John Sr to Medford and lived with him off and on between 1849 and 1856. James Pierpont is listed in the 1850 census as living with his father and having no profession. Poll tax records place James in Medford in 1850, 1852, 1853, 1855, and 1856 (Medford Historical Society & Museum). Between 1849 and 1857, James tried and failed at many occupations; records trace him to posts in Sacramento, San Francisco, Savannah (as music director at the church where his older brother, Rev. John Pierpont Jr, was rector), and Boston as well as Medford. In 1856, he served as corresponding secretary for his father's speaking engagements. He also sewed dresses with Millie. In an excerpt of a letter from James to his father on 6 March 1856, he writes: “We are all well and doing famously. I have over 1000 yards of linen to make into bosoms and Millie & I are drove most to death. All I have done since you are gone is make bosoms and [answered] your business correspondence” (Pierpont Family Papers, ARC 736, PML, box 9, folder 36). See also Rev. Henry C. Delong, “John Pierpont,” Medford Historical Register 6.4 (October 1903): 75–89.

12. Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, 21.

13. For more on status reversal onstage see Mahar, William J., “Ethiopian Skits and Sketches: Contents and Contexts of Blackface Minstrelsy, 1840–1890” [1991], in Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, ed. Bean, Annemarie, Hatch, James V., and McNamara, Brooks (Hanover, NH and London: UPNE, for Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 179220 , at 198–9.

14. See Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, 195–203.

15. Letter from Charles Mathews to Anne Mathews, 12 January 1823, in Mrs. (Mathews, Anne Jackson, Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian, vol. 3 (London: Richard Bentley, 1839), 355–7, at 356.

16. Brooks, Charles, History of the Town of Medford (Boston: James M. Usher, 1855), 424. “Taverns seemed to subserve all purposes… . Especially sleigh-riding parties found them convenient. Medford was just about far enough from Boston to tempt a party to a ride on a pleasant moonlight evening. Scarcely one such evening passed without witnessing a gathering of young people, who brought with them their ‘fiddler’ or procured our ‘Greenough;’ and who danced from seven to ten, then took a hearty supper, and reached Boston at twelve. New forms of trade and amusement have almost wholly displaced these former customs.” Medford is five miles north of Boston. In the 1885 edition of History of the Town of Medford, “Greenough” is described as a “noted colored fiddler of Medford,” 390. This would explain the word “our” above.

17. “Musical,” New-York Daily Times, 18 January 1854, 5: “[T]here is a new Polka, descriptive of a sleigh ride, and composed in honor of a Boston military company. Boston is a capital place for sleighing, and if M. Jullien has imparted to his polka the gayety and merriness of a ride on the ‘Neck,’ he has done something worth hearing.”

18. Howard, John Tasker, Our American Music (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell, 1931), 220; Davis, 15.

19. Jullien's Concerts,” in Bizarre, For Fireside and Wayside 4 (7 January 1854), 271–2 (Philadelphia: Publication Office).

20. New-York Daily Times, 9 January 1857, 5.

21. New World 9.15 (12 October 1844), 469. To set the mood, the issue of the magazine also begins with a quote from Alexander Pope: “Party is the madness of many, for the gain of a few.”

22. Q. K. Philander Doesticks P.B. [Mortimer Q. Thomson], “Amusement for the Million—A 2.40 Sleigh Ride,” Doesticks, What He Says, new ed. (New York: Livermore & Rudd, 1856), 180–92, at 181.

23. See, for example, the well-known print “The Road—Winter” by Otto Knirsch, printed in 1853. The lyrics added by Mitchell Parish (1950) to Leroy Anderson's popular instrumental “Sleigh Ride” (1948) wistfully re-create this image in these lines: “It'll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives / These wonderful things are the things / We remember all through our lives!”

24. McClintock, Captain (attrib.), John Beedle's Sleigh-Ride, Courtship and Marriage (New York: C. Wells, 1841). It seems that the work was to be a serial, originally published in newspapers by 1835; see, e.g., Marriage of John Beedle,” Cadiz [Ohio] Sentinel 2.10 (24 April 1835), 1, which alludes to readers having “heretofore read the ‘Sleigh Ride’ and ‘The Courting’” (italics theirs). The collection, published together by 1841, comprises “The Sleigh Ride,” “The Courting,” and “The Marriage of John Beedle.” “The Sleigh Ride”—also published as “Johnny Beedle's Sleigh-Ride” (by Major McClintock) in The Rover, A Weekly Magazine 2 (1844): 309–11 (New York: S. B. Dean)—has been misattributed to (among others) John Neal, who had written another piece called “The Sleigh Ride” for his monthly, The Yankee. Neal, John, Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life: An Autobiography (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869), 343.

25. Patten, Lieut. G. W., “The Merry Sleigh,” Ladies’ Companion, and Literary Expositor 20 (December 1843), 147. The poem is reproduced here in full in Appendix 1.

26. Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, 28–33.

27. The Bells,” The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, 4 vols., ed. Griswald, Rufus Wilmot (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850), 2: 23.

28. Joanna Baillie is the supported author of the lyrics to “The Bonny Boat” in 1822. It is unknown who adapted it for a sleigh song. The minstrel song here should be understood as part of a sentimental parlor repertoire and not yet part of the blackface tradition.

29. The New Song Book: Containing a Choice Collection of the Most Popular Songs, Glees, Choruses, Extravaganzas, etc. (Hartford: Ezra Strong, 1836), 47–9.

30. The American Minstrel: A Choice Collection of the Most Popular Song, Glees, Duets etc. (Philadelphia: Marshall, Clarke & Co., 1833).

31. Broyles, Michael, Beethoven in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 17.

32. McClintock, John Beedle's Sleigh Ride, 10–11.

33. A Ball at the Far-West,” Ladies’ Companion 7 (1837), 21–3, at 21.

34. Complete Catalogue of Sheet Music and Musical Works … 1870 (New York: Board of Music Trade of the United States of America, 1871).

35. “The Merry Sleigh Ride,” written by Lieut. G. W. Patten, music composed by I. B. Woodbury (Boston: Keith's Music Publishing House, 1844).

36. Varying titles of songs using Patten's lyrics include the original “Merry Sleigh Ride” with music by I. B. Woodbury (1844), as well as the “Sleigh Bell Song” (n.d.; see Fig. 3); “The Merry Sleigh, Jingle Jingle Clear the Way,” with music by Herrman S. Saroni (1844); “Merry Sleigh,” composed by Claire W. Beames (1855); “De Merry Sleigh Bells” (ca. 1853); “Darkey Sleigh Ride Party” (ca. 1853); “The Darkey Sleighing Party” (ca. 1853); “The Merry Sleigh Bells”; and another, different “The Merry Sleigh Bells.” See New Negro Band Songster (Philadelphia: Fisher & Brother, n.d. [1850s]); “De Darkies’ Sleighing Party” an advertising song sheet for J. H. Johnson Song Publisher, 1851; in American Song Sheets, Slip Ballads, and Poetical Broadsides, 1850–1870, ed. Wolf, Edwin II (Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1963), 29, no. 427 ; see, accessed 2 June 2017; George Christy's Essence of Old Kentucky (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862); Wood's New Plantation Melodies (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862); and The Book of Popular Songs (Philadelphia: G. G. Evans, 1860).

37. Arranged and composed by Nelson Kneass, and sung by M. Campbell at Wood's Minstrel Hall, ca. 1853. See one version of the full song in Appendix 2.

38. Playbills are from the American Minstrel Show collection, 1823–1947 (MS Thr 556), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (hereinafter HTC); Series II—American minstrel show playbills (Ordway, folder 518; Kunkel, folder 461).

39. Although in Ordway Hall the playbills regularly state: “gentlemen are requested not to beat time with their feet as it is unpleasant to the audience and interrupts the Performers”; HTC, MS Thr 556, folders 517–21.

40. “Buckley's Celebrated Sleighing Song,” by A. Sedgwick (New York: Horace Waters, 1853).

41. Playbill, 20 April 1856, Perham's Minstrels, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 529.

42. Playbill, 16 August 1856, Perham's Opera Troupe, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 529.

43. Playbill, 19 April 1855, Ordway Hall, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 519. See also Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, on burlesquing Jullien, 31–2.

44. Playbill, 19 April 1855, Ordway Hall, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 519.

45. Playbills for Ordway's Aeolians on 18 February 1851 and 9 April 1855, HTC, MS Thr 556, folders 517 and 519, respectively.

46. “The Returned Californian,” by James Pierpont, arranged by John P. Ordway, sung by S. C. Howard of Ordway's Aeolians (Boston: E. H. Wade, 1852). In letters to his father James wrote of his failures in the West: “I have been unfortunate in an enterprise I had every reason to suppose would be successful” (1 March 1851); “out of employment again” (2 June 1951). John Pierpont Papers (ARC 726), PML, box 9, folder 37. Much of his anxiety about money had to do with sending it home to his wife and children who were living in Troy, NY. In a letter from Millie Pierpont to her father-in-law (29 September 1851), she writes that “Mr. Sprague [James's] employer told him that as business was so dull he could not raise his salary as promised, but on the contrary if he staid [sic] with him he should be obliged to lower it, James thought he could not stand that so left and is now at the mines on the Yuba river, had been there but two weeks so could not tell how he should make out.” John Pierpont Papers (ARC 726), PML, box 10, folder 51.

47. Eric Lott, “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture” [1993], in Inside the Minstrel Mask, ed. Bean et al., 3–32, at 7.

48. In a letter from James's brother, Rev. John Pierpont Jr, to their father, Rev. John Pierpont Sr, on 26 December 1853—after James had left his family to become music director at his brother's church in Savannah—John Jr writes: “James is very well, & is conducting himself very properly. Indeed he seems very thoughtful & I think a change is working in his character for the better” (Pierpont Family Papers, ARC 1289, PML, box 2, folder 13). See also The Georgia Letters of John Pierpont Jr. to his Father, Part I,” ed. Gibson, George H., Georgia Historical Quarterly 55.4 (Winter 1971), 543–81. According to census records, I put forth that James had a child out of wedlock with Eliza Jane Purse in 1854 (who became his second wife in September 1857) while he was still married to Millie.

49. The sheet music says words and music by “Jas. Pierpont Esq. (of Savannah, Geo).” According to the New York Daily Times, on 2 May 1853, James Pierpont sailed from New York to Savannah on the steamship Alabama. Thus his connection to that city began. In the Savannah Daily Morning News for 24 December 1853 and 4 January 1854, an advertisement lists James Pierpont as playing at St. Andrews Hall for “fashionable dancing.”

50. Marshall S. Pike had a long career in minstrelsy that was interrupted when he enlisted in the Union army. Taken prisoner late in June 1862 and released from Libby Prison, Richmond, in December, Pike resumed his career as a minstrel with the Pike & Glunn's troupe when the war ended.

51. Toll, Robert C., Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 68–9.

52. See Appendix 3.

53. “Two forty” speed refers to traveling a mile by sleigh in two minutes and forty seconds, equivalent to 22.5 mph. See Doesticks [Thomson], whose subtitle is “A 2.40 Sleigh Ride.” For the complete lyrics, see Appendix 3. A “bob tailed bay” is a horse with reddish-brown body and black mane, markings, and tail—this last having been shortened.

54. According to the Massachusetts State Census records from 1865, John D. Pell, age 34, is listed with the occupation “Minstrel.”

55. Playbill for Morris Bros., Pell & Huntley, January 1858, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 501.

56. Pierpont, “Jingle Bells,” sheet music and related program, Fuld Collection, PML.

57. Program for Christy and Wood's Minstrels, 28 April 1858, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 316.

58. New York Times, 23 March 1858, 4.

59. Program for Christy and Wood's Minstrels, 28 April 1858, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 316.

60. Dictionary of American Regional English, vol. 5: Si–Z, chief ed. Hall, Joan Houston (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 796; also Neal, Joseph Clay, Charcoal Sketches; or, Scenes in a Metropolis, new (7th) ed. (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1843), 182, 192.

61. Negro Dialect Recitations, ed. Baker, George M. (Franklin, OH: Eldridge Entertainment House, 1887), 20–1.

62. “My Brudder Gum,” written and composed by S[tephen]. C. Foster (New York: Firth, Pond & Co., 1849).

63. “Go It While You're Young,” composed by T. G. Booth (Boston: Keith's Music Publishing House, 1845). For the sermon, see Dow Jr [Elbridge Gerry Paige], Dow's Patent Sermons, 4 vols. (Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson & Brothers, 1857), 2: 176–8.

64. Playbill, Ordway's Aeolians, 2 March 1855, HTC, MS Thr 556, folder 519. See sheet music: “Laughing Darkies, Comic Ethiopian Song” as sung by Fellow's Minstrels, composed by E. Renzlus (New York: Firth, Pond & Co., 1851); also “Laughing Chorus,” as sung by Buckley's Serenaders at Buckley's Opera House, New York, composed by E. Renzlus (New York: Horace Waters, 1853).

65. Tucker, Christopher, “Melody and Mirth on Washington Street: John Ordway and Blackface Minstrelsy in Antebellum Boston,” The Historian 74.1 (2012), 2547 , esp. at 28. It is worth noting the convergence of Pierpont's business in Boston and the relationship between Ordway Hall at the rear of 165–171 Washington Street and Oliver Ditson's music shop (previously the “Old Print Shop”) at 277 Washington Street. E. H. Wade's music store was located at 197 Washington Street. In his last known address before moving to Savannah in 1857, Pierpont can be found in the Boston Directory living and working at L. H. Hale's daguerreotype studio at 109 Washington Street.

66. Robert C. Winans, “Early Minstrel Show Music, 1843–1852” [1984], in Inside the Minstrel Mask , ed. Bean et al., 141–62, at 144.

67. These covers may be seen online as follows, both accessed 15 May 2017: “One Horse Open Sleigh” (1857),; “Jingle Bells; or, The One Horse Open Sleigh” (1959),

68. For the cover of “Buckley's Celebrated Sleighing Song” (1853), see, accessed 15 May 2017. For the Currier & Ives print, see note 23.

69. Aunt Sukey's First Sleigh Ride,” Harper's Young People 1.15 (February 1880), 179–80 (New York: Harper & Brothers). Page citations are given parenthetically in the text.

70. It is unclear why Pierpont recopyrighted the song in 1859 under the new title with which we now associate it. Perhaps he was hoping to make more money, or he was beginning to separate himself from his musical friends in the North as he became a Southern sympathizer. By the Civil War, Pierpont published songs for the Southern cause, such as “We Conquer or Die” (1861), “Our Battle Flag” (1862), and “Strike for the South” (1863), and he even enlisted to fight in the Confederate Army.

71. This version can be heard at For more on the Edison Quartet see Averill, Gage, Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 63, 69.

72. See “Jingle, Bells” [sic], in College Songs: A Collection of New and Popular Songs of the American Colleges, ed. Waite, Henry Randall (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1887), 70. In the sheet music, it says the song was copyrighted in 1857 and 1859 by O. Ditson & Co. and in 1885 by J. Pierpont. There is a notation that the chorus should be “[a]ccompanied by jingling glasses.” See also College Songs for Banjo, arranged by Baur, A. and Cole, W. A. (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1888).

73. See Wood's New Plantation Melodies, 28–9.

74. This is a rendering in dialect of “sausages.”

75. For “two forty” speed see note 53.

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“The story I must tell”: Jingle Bells in the Minstrel Repertoire

  • Kyna Hamill


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