I keep telling you guys: nobody does this stuff better than he does.
Unlikely as it sounds, a real live songwriter did sit down one day and write “Jingle Bells”. His name was James Lord Pierpont and he wrote and published many other songs in his lifetime, among them “The Colored Coquette” and others lost to posterity, but a few that have survived, such as “Our Battle Flag”, a paean not to Old Glory but to the banner of the Confederacy. Every song but “Jingle Bells” was a flop – and that “Battle Flag” number would be a hate crime to the tender sensitivities of today’s youth.
But, if you’re going to be a one-hit wonder, “Jingle Bells” is the one hit to have. That merry jingle you hear this time of year isn’t sleighbells but cash registers ringing up Christmas albums from country to rap, almost all of which contain some version or other of James Pierpont’s 150-year-old hit. He didn’t live to benefit from the recording age, and by the time of his death in 1893, he was more or less penniless. Instead, he came from a wealthy family, and worked his way down to impoverishment.
J Pierpont Morgan, archetypal American plutocrat, was the nephew of the J Pierpont who wrote “Jingle Bells”. The Pierponts are an old family who can trace their roots back to 8th century France and Charlemagne. They came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and by the 18th century were established in the American colonies. One Pierpont helped found Yale, another helped found the Unitarian Church. But James Lord Pierpont, born in Boston in 1822, was a different kind of Pierpont. At the age of ten he was sent to school in New Hampshire, from where he wrote his mom a letter about a sleigh ride through the northern snows, the first recorded glimmer of his brightest idea. Four years later he ran away to sea aboard a ship called the Shark, which took him way down south to Latin America, thence to Honolulu and on to Oregon.
That was the first recorded instance of another recurring activity in Pierpont’s life – running away. James was the son of the Reverend John Pierpont, Unitarian minister in Medford, Massachusetts, also poet, Abolitionist and Prohibitionist, and prone, on the last two subjects, to fulminate at length and at volume. James married a young lady from Troy, New York (hometown of the author of another 19th century seasonal blockbuster: “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”). He tried his hand at the grocery business and at insurance, but without success and returned to Medford.
In 1848, he ran away again, leaving his wife and children with the grandparents, and trying his luck in the California gold rush. His land deal disappeared with his pardnah, his dairy herd was sold out from under him, his photography business burned down. So back to Massachusetts, and his real interest: music. He began writing numbers in the genres of the day – polkas and minstrel songs – and they were professionally published in Boston. But it was time to run away again – this time to Georgia, where his brother had gone to be minister. As before, Millicent and the children stayed in Medford, and the Bostonian sheet music began identifying composer Pierpont as “a gentleman of Savannah”.
How gentlemanly he was is a matter of speculation.
Another engrossing music post filled with fun facts, none of which I had any idea about until Steyn went a-digging. If I ever do get a spare nickel again, I am definitely buying that book of his I mentioned in my last Music History a la Steyn post. Great as he is at politics and world affairs and such, this just might be his true métier, I think. It couldn’t be more obvious how much joy he gets out of it.