Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Music for Christmas 2014

When I first started working at City Lit ten years ago, we put together a Christmas show that included "The One-Horse Open Sleigh," the original version of the song the public renamed "Jingle Bells."  As you'll hear, the chorus melody is a bit more complicated than the one we know today, and the song has perfectly lovely verses we don't know at all.

James Pierpont was born in 1822, in the heart of anti-slavery Boston, the son of the Reverend John Pierpont, an abolitionist Unitarian minister and famous in his day for several anti-slavery poems.  James's brother, also named John and also an abolitionist Unitarian minister, moved to Georgia to take on the daunting task of heading an anti-slavery congregation there.  In 1853, he invited James to move there as well, to become his church's music director and organist.

James was 31 and had not really settled down.  Married with two children, he had left his family behind with his parents in Massachusetts in 1849 to join the rush for California gold.  Finding none, he had returned home, but now left his wife and children again--this time for good--to go to Georgia.  In addition to fulfilling his duties at his brother's church, he spent the 1850s writing songs and instrumental pieces for the minstrel circuit.  One of the latter, 1854's "The Know Nothing Polka," was a tribute to the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Know-Nothing Party.  A song, co-written in 1857 with lyricist Marshall S. Pike, "Gentle Nettie Moore," was recorded in the 1930s by The Sons of the Pioneers when Roy Rogers was still in their line-up, and is the uncredited basis for Bob Dylan's song "Nettie Moore" on his 2006 Modern Times CD.

Also in 1857, Pierpont wrote "The One-Horse Open Sleigh" for a Thanksgiving celebration at the church.  It was successful enough that the performance was repeated the following month at Christmas, and the song has been associated with Christmas (when there is more likely to be snow through which to dash) ever since.  Published that same year, it was re-published two years later under the title it had become popularly known by, "Jingle Bells."

By 1859, whatever demand there had been for an abolitionist church in Georgia had evaporated and the Reverend John Jr had returned to the North.  James stayed in Georgia with his second wife and family.  When the war broke out and his 76-year-old father enlisted as a chaplain in the Union Army, he enlisted in the Confederate cavalry as a clerk and continued to write songs, now exclusively pro-Confederate war numbers with such titles as "Strike for the South" and "We Conquer or Die."

Once the war ended, Pierpont never wrote another song.  He lived until 1893, teaching music and working as a church organist.  Inadequate 19th-Century copyright laws being what they were, he never made much money from his great Christmas hit. 

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