“Jingle Bells,” copyrighted as “One Horse Open Sleigh” on September 16, 1857, was not intended as a Christmas song. It was written by James Lord Pierpont, born in Boston, the son of active abolitionist and Unitarian minister John Pierpont. James followed his older brother John Pierpont, Jr. to Savannah where John took the ministry of a Unitarian church and James became the organist. John returned to Boston at the outbreak of the Civil War and James served with the First Georgia Cavalry and wrote patriotic songs for the Confederacy, one of which (“We Conquer or Die”) was to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
Considerable controversy surrounds the origin of “Jingle Bells” whose lyric contains no mention of Christmas. It portrays a young man, possibly courting his girl, on a joyous, fun-filled sleigh ride.
A day or two ago
I thought I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
We got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot
One story has it that the song was written in the early 1850s for a Thanksgiving celebration at the Massachusetts church of James’ father and that the comment of a friend who called it “a merry little jingle,” influenced the lyric. The song proved so popular that it was performed again at Christmas. The southern version of the story claims that Pierpont wrote the song while in Savannah and copyrighted it in 1857 with Boston publisher the Oliver Ditson Company which reissued the song in 1859 as “Jingle Bells or the One Horse Open Sleigh.” The melody of the chorus for the 1857 song and some of the lyrics are slightly different from the version we know today.
Pierpont was originally credited on the sheet music as “J. Pierpont” which led some to believe that it was written by his father who was somewhat of a poet. After James’ death in 1893, the song was variously credited to Anonymous and to a Dr. Uriah Pierpont who had renewed the copyright. Because of the efforts of James’ family, authorship of the song was finally properly credited.
The first recording of the song was by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898 on an Edison brown wax cylinder, and the second in 1902 by the Hayden Quartet. It was the 1943 version by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (which sold over a million copies) that established the song as a perennial holiday favorite.
“Jingle Bells” is often parodied and has been referenced by performers such as Bobby Helms whose “Jingle Bell Rock” charted four times between 1957 and 1961 and has become a Christmas classic on its own. “Jingle Bells” was also the first song broadcast from space by Gemini 6 astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford in a Christmas prank on December 16, 1965. Over the years it has charted in various versions:
and His Orchestra (1941, #5, with Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton and the Modernaires on vocals)
Primo Scala and His Banjo and Accordion Orchestra (1949, #24 with the Keynotes)
Yogi Yorgesson (1949, #7, as “Yingle Bells.” Yorgesson also had a hit the same year with “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas”)
Les Paul (1951/52, #10, multi-tracked guitar)
Pop/R&B singer Kimberley Locke topped Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart in 2006 with her version of “Jingle Bells.”
The song is universally popular among performers of all ilks--from country to heavy metal--and is performed in many languages. Some of the jazz performers who’ve recorded it include: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Ann Hampton Callaway, and, in 2000, vibraphonist Mike Horsfall.