In December of 2017 there were a flurry of articles in various publications about a research paper published by Kyna Hamill, a theater history professor from Boston University. This paper claimed that “Jingle Bells is rooted in racism” (*1, *2, *3). What is the story behind these articles? And is this it true?
Dr. Hamill started researching the history of the famous Christmas carol after a so-called “Jingle Bells War” – a dispute between two towns, Medford, Massachusetts, and Savannah, Georgia, that both claimed to be the birthplace of the song written by James Pierpont. Some of her quotes are:
“Its origins emerged from the economic needs of a perpetually unsuccessful man, the racial politics of antebellum Boston, the city’s climate, and the intertheatrical repertoire of commercial blackface moving between Boston and New York.”
“The traces of blackface minstrel origins can be found in the music and lyrics, as well as the elements of ‘male display’, boasting, and the unbridled behavior of the male body onstage.”
“Words such a ‘thro’, ‘tho’t’, and ‘upsot’ suggest a racialized performance that attempted to sound ‘southern’ to a northern audience.”
“The first documented performance of the song is in a blackface minstrel hall in Boston in 1857, the same year it was copyrighted. Much research has been done on the problematic history of this nineteenth-century entertainment.”
Timeline of James Lord Pierpont’s Life
James Lord Pierpont was born in 1822 in Boston, Massachusetts (*4). His father, the Reverend John Pierpont, was a pastor of the Hollis Street Unitarian Church in Boston, an abolitionist and a poet. At the age of 14 James ran away to sea aboard a whaling ship. He then served in the US Navy until the age of 21.
By 1845 he had returned to New England where he married and settled in the late 1840s in Medford, Massachusetts. In 1849 he left his wife and children with his father and went to San Francisco to open a business during the California Gold Rush. His business failed.
In 1852, James’ brother, John Jr., accepted a post with the Savannah, Georgia, Unitarian congregation. James followed him there a few years later, taking a post as the organist and music director of the church.
In 1852, James published his first song, “The Returned Californian” which described his experiences in California. The first lines were, “Oh! I’m going far away from my Creditors just now, I ain’t the tin to pay ‘em and they’re kicking up a row.” He published many more songs during the following decade, including polkas, ballads, and minstrel songs.
His first wife died in 1856 and the children of that marriage remained in Massachusetts with their grandfather. James remarried in 1857 to the daughter of the mayor of Savannah. In 1859 the church in Savannah closed due its abolitionist position and his brother returned to the north. James stayed in Savannah.
During the Civil War, James served in the Confederacy as a company clerk and he wrote music for the Confederacy. Since his father served as a military chaplain for the Union Army, James and his father were on opposite sides during the war.
After the war, James and his family moved to Valdosta, Georgia, then a few years later to Quitman, Georgia. He and his second wife eventually had four children. He spent his final days in Winter Haven, Florida, where he died in 1893. At his request he was buried in Savannah.
This is not the first controversy about Jingle Bells. Because it was not until many years later that the song became popular, the authorship of it was sometimes attributed to James’ brother, John Jr., or even to his father, John. It has also occasionally been attributed to J. S. Pierpont instead of J. L. Pierpont. This is somewhat understandable as the original score is simply marked “J. Pierpont.”
In addition, there is a claim that the song had been written in a tavern in Medford during 1850. This is also quite obviously incorrect since James was in California at that time. But the plaque in Medford has that date on it (*5).
[Note that the plaque says, “’Jingle Bells’ composed here. On this site stood the Simpson Tavern, where in 1850 James Pierpont (1822-1893) write the song ‘Jingle Bells’ in the presence of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who later verified that the song was written here. Pierpont had the song copyrighted in 1857 while living in Georgia. ‘Jingle Bells’ tells of the sleigh races held on Salem Street in the early 1800’s. Medford Historical Society”]
A Timeline of the Controversy
Medford lay claim to the carol without challenge until 1969 when a Savannah Unitarian, Milton Rahn, noticed that the song his daughter was playing on a piano had the composer of J. Pierpont (*6). He had earlier found letters written by John Pierpont, Jr. the church’s former pastor, and further research found that James had married in Savannah in 1857, several weeks before he copyrighted “Jingle Bells.” “I saw this as something to help us get publicity for the church,” he said.
After Savannah erected a “Jingle Bells” marker across from the church in 1985, then-Mayor John Rousakis declared the tune a Savannah song. A series of not-so-jolly exchanges followed. The mayor of Medford wrote in 1989, “We unequivocally state that ‘Jingle Bells’ was composed … in the town of Medford during the year 1850!”
Later, in 2001, Ace Collins, author of the book “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas”, said that he found a New England newspaper from the early 1840s that mentioned “One Horse Open Sleigh” (the original name of the song) debuting in Medford at a Thanksgiving church service. The song proved so popular, he said, that Pierpont gave a repeat performance at Christmas.
Most recently, Dr. Hamill found a playbill from the Harvard Theater Collection that shows the song was first performed at Ordway Hall on Sept. 15, 1857, in blackface, during a minstrel show.
Finally, Wikipedia (*1) notes that “The song was copyrighted on September 16, 1857. The song was originally performed in a Sunday school concert on Thanksgiving in Savannah, Georgia.”
Resolving the Timeline Problems
First, it’s pretty obvious that despite the plaque in Medford seemingly quoting factual information, the date of composition in 1850 is incorrect as James was in California at the time. The mayor of Medford relied on that incorrect plaque in his letter to the mayor of Savannah in 1989. [It’s also worth noting that in the 1850’s the “Simpson Tavern” quoted on the plaque did not yet exist. Mrs. Otis Waterman at the time ran a boarding house called the “Seccomb House” which did own a piano at the time, but the building did not become a tavern until some years later.]
Next, despite the claim of the newspaper article quoted by Ace Collins, it is highly unlikely that the first performance of the song was in the early 1840s. James was in the Navy until 1843, and all of his other known songs were written between 1852 and 1863, so this claim is off by at least 10 years.
However, Wikipedia is correct on the date of the copyright. Their copy, which is in the Library of Congress contains a hand-written inscription which states that the document was “deposited” on that date and also gives a notation where the copyright itself is stored (*7).
As Constance Turner, a great-granddaughter of James, wrote in 2003 (*6), “No one really knows where he was when he wrote it – that’s the rub. Evidently, James was quite the free spirit and he published some bad songs and one, at least, we know of that’s a very good song.” [Note that Constance passed away in 2016, but I am in contact with one of her children so that we can properly add her and her family to the official Pierpont Family Tree.]
But Was Jingle Bells Racist?
Having addressed all the issues with where and when the song was written, we need to get back to the initial question on whether the song is racist. And to do that, we really need to consider the culture and history of when it was written rather than the standards of today.
First, let’s look at James, the author. He came from a family that was staunchly against slavery. His father has been called a “leading antebellum antislavery poet” (*8). Research by the Medford Historical Society in 1903 (*9), noted that he “was a man of such positive convictions concerning slavery and temperance.” James’ brother, John Jr., also had those types of convictions, so much so that the Unitarian Church in Savannah was well known for its abolitionist position.
But does that mean that James himself felt the same way? It is likely not the case as he can be seen so often distancing himself from the views of his father – in running away at sea, in leaving his family and going to California, and in serving in the Confederacy.
During the period that James most likely wrote the song he had not yet been in the South, so his primary influence was in the culture of Boston. He was also known to have written other minstrel songs. The original score of the song (*7) has the words “to John P. Ordway” above the song title on the cover sheet. John Ordway was a music entrepreneur in Boston who had established a blackface minstrel troupe in 1845 (*10). James’ first song, “The Returned Californian”, was written specifically for Ordway. And thus it is quite apparent from the cover sheet of “One Horse Open Sleigh” that this was also written for Ordway (and the fact that the first documented performance was in Ordway Hall (owned by the same individual) is not a coincidence). So James wrote the song intending that it be performed by Ordway’s blackface minstrel troupe.
Thus, I believe that a Wikipedia article (*4) got it right when it says,
“Minstrel songs were popular in the 1850s. … The lyrics to all minstrel songs reflect and mirror the endemic racism and racial stereotypes inherent in American society and culture. Minstrel songs and the minstrel genre exploited racial stereotypes and racially stereotypical language. The minstrel genre, however, was only a representation of the wider societal racism in the United States.”
The bottom line of my research is that I believe that the quotes by Dr. Hamill given earlier in this blog are correct.
In 21st century America, we have long since forgotten, and can no longer appreciate, the attitudes toward racism that existed 150 years ago. And so, while we can still sing this popular song written by one of our Pierpont ancestors and enjoy it, we still need to acknowledge the history of the times that were behind it.