- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Dashing in the sun, through oaks and Spanish moss / Sleigh riding’s no fun, when there’s no snow to cross … .

Could “Jingle Bells” really be a song of the South?

It’s not hard to see why balmy Savannah has a tough time selling the Christmas carol as a native creation. Or why the claim makes folks in Medford, Mass. — hometown of the song’s composer — cry humbug.

This much is known for sure: James Pierpont was the organist at Savannah’s Unitarian Universalist Church in 1857 when he copyrighted the song “One Horse Open Sleigh,” a title later changed to “Jingle Bells.”

Arguably the most popular American Christmas song, “Jingle Bells” made Pierpont a pre-Civil War one-hit wonder. But did he write it here as a piece of homesick, holiday nostalgia? Or did he compose it years before in Medford, not seeing the tune as a moneymaker until he drifted south?

“No one really knows where he was when he wrote it — that’s the rub,” said Constance Turner, Pierpont’s great-granddaughter in Coronado, Calif. “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.”

Medford, just outside Boston, got to claim the carol without challenge until 1969, when Milton Rahn, a Savannah Unitarian, revealed he’d linked the song’s composer to coastal Georgia.

Mr. Rahn had been researching the church’s Savannah roots years earlier when the epiphany struck. Mr. Rahn was listening to his daughter play “Jingle Bells” at the piano when he glanced at the sheet music and noticed the composer’s name: J. Pierpont. He soon tracked down the writer’s full name.

Mr. Rahn already had found letters that John Pierpont Jr., the church’s pastor from 1852 to 1858, had written home to Medford saying his brother, James, had come to Savannah as an organist and music teacher. Further research found that the composer had married in Savannah in 1857, weeks before he copyrighted “Jingle Bells.”

“I said to my wife and daughter, ‘This is something that’s like pay dirt,’” Mr. Rahn said. “I saw this as something to help us get publicity for the church.”

Mr. Rahn dove into Pierpont’s past. His search took him from Pierpont’s grave in Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery to the Pierpont-Morgan Library in New York. He went to the Library of Congress for a copy of the original sheet music and located the old church organ in Tallahassee, Fla.

Pierpont, who lived from 1822 to 1893, was said to be a wanderer who ran away to sea at 14 and later went to California during the Gold Rush. During the Civil War, Pierpont joined a Confederate cavalry regiment in Savannah, bucking the staunch abolitionist views of his family.

His other songs included several touting the Confederate cause, with titles such as “We Conquer Or Die” and “Strike for the South.” But none struck a chord like “Jingle Bells” did.

After Savannah erected a “Jingle Bells” marker in Troup Square across from the church in 1985, then-Mayor John Rousakis declared the tune a Savannah song.

To folks in Medford, that made Mr. Rousakis and Mr. Rahn a pair of grinches out to steal their Christmas history. A series of not-so-jolly exchanges followed.

“In the words of Shakespeare, it is our intention to keep our ‘honor from corruption,’” Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn wrote in a 1989 letter to Mr. Rousakis. “We unequivocally state that ‘Jingle Bells’ was composed … in the town of Medford during the year 1850!”

Mr. Rousakis fired back with an equally strong, unyielding letter.

“James L. Pierpont is still here with us,” Mr. Rousakis wrote, noting the composer’s Savannah burial. “I am sure [Pierpont] will join us in spirit when we finally and formally proclaim Savannah, Georgia, as the birthplace of ‘Jingle Bells.’”

Mr. McGlynn, who still is the Medford mayor, said the debate resurfaces every few years. The city Web site includes pages on Pierpont and “Jingle Bells” that both take swipes at Savannah. But Mr. McGlynn insists he bears no grudge toward the city or toward Mr. Rousakis, who died in 2000.

“It’s part of our history, so of course it’s important to us,” Mr. McGlynn said. “I think the debate will go on for many years. We feel comfortable here with our position. There are much bigger things in life to get excited about.”

The “Jingle Bells” story, according to Medford, and largely accepted elsewhere, goes like this: Around 1850, inspired by the winter sleigh races down snow-filled Salem Street in Medford, Pierpont wrote the song at the Simpson Tavern, a boardinghouse that had the only piano in town.

That account was told to the Boston Globe in December 1946 by Stella Howe, the grandniece of Mary Gleason Waterman, who ran the boardinghouse when Pierpont lived in Medford.

Back in Savannah, Mr. Rahn still doubts that story. Though Pierpont came from an aristocratic family — his nephew was the financier John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan — he never made much money himself.

So why would he hold onto “Jingle Bells” for years before publishing it?

“It’s an anomaly,” Mr. Rahn said. “You had this free spirit, never made much money, living hand-to-mouth. A person down and out as he was, if he had something, he was ready to market it for $20 or whatever he could get.”

But Ace Collins, author of the 2001 book “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas,” says he found more proof of Medford’s being the rightful birthplace while researching his chapter on “Jingle Bells.”

Mr. Collins said he found a New England newspaper from the early 1840s that mentioned “One Horse Open Sleigh” debuting in Medford at a Thanksgiving church service. The song proved so popular, he said, that Pierpont gave a repeat performance at Christmas.

When it comes to which city deserves the bragging rights, Mr. Collins gets diplomatic. Pierpont might have written his song in Medford, he says, but Savannah made him realize its universal appeal.

“Savannah was the key. If it can play in Savannah, where snow was a novelty, it can play anywhere,” Mr. Collins said. “It’s kind of like Elvis may have been from Tupelo, but Memphis was where he had to go to become famous.”

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