Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 13

Curious GEORGIA

By Carolyn Crist

Savannah claims origin
of 'Jingle Bells'

LESLIE MOSES

WIK

IME

DIA C
OMMONS

O

ne of America's most
famous holiday songs
has a mysterious
background; both Georgia and
Massachusetts lay claim to the
tune. First published in 1857,
" Jingle Bells " was written by
James Lord Pierpont, who lived
in Medford, Mass., before traveling to Savannah to work as
an organist and music director
at the Unitarian church where
his brother was the minister.
Both Medford and Savannah
have historical markers that
proclaim the song's birthplace.
The song's original title
was " The One Horse Open
Sleigh, " but the song was
reissued as " Jingle Bells " two
years later. The original song
was about sleigh racing, not
the holidays, and emphasized
the fun of " dashing through
the snow. " Around the time he
published the song, Pierpont
first performed it at a Sunday
school concert on Thanksgiving in Savannah. Later, he played it
at the Unitarian church at Christmas, and its popularity surged
from there.
" One of the theories is that he became homesick when in
Savannah and recalled the sleigh rides he had as a young child,
and he may have written the song while thinking about that, "
says Sally Bond Tonsmeire, a Cartersville resident and one of
the oldest living relatives of Pierpont. She and family members
unveiled the historical marker in Savannah in 1985.
Her son, Louis Tonsmeire Jr., has done some digging into
the song's history as well. As it became more popular and
shifted into a holiday song, the original lyrics were changed
sometime in the late 1800s. One of the original lines, " Go it while
you're young; Take the girls tonight, " harks back to the sleigh
races that occurred in front of the former Simpson Tavern in
Medford, where Pierpont visited and may have written the song.
" When it was first written, it was a drunken sleigh song, "
Louis Tonsmeire says with a laugh.
On Dec. 16, 1965, " Jingle Bells " was the first song broadcast
from space, when astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford

Above: " Jingle Bells " composer
James L. Pierpont served as
music director in the 1850s of a
Savannah Unitarian church.
Left: A historical marker in
Savannah honors Pierpont
and his best-known song.

played it on a harmonica and
bells while orbiting the Earth
on Gemini 6. " Jingle Bells "
was among the top 25 mostrecorded songs in history
from 1890 to 1954, and Pierpont was elected to the Songwriters
Hall of Fame in 1970.
Pierpont wrote other songs, too, including ditties about the
Gold Rush while visiting California in 1849. When he enlisted
with the 5th Georgia Cavalry during the Civil War, Pierpont
wrote Confederate anthems such as " We Conquer or Die, " " Our
Battle Flag " and " Strike for the South. " He lived in Georgia after
the war and taught music in Valdosta and Quitman.
Pierpont died at his son's home in Winter Haven, Fla., in
1893 and was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah.
He was the uncle of John Pierpont Morgan-J.P. Morgan-who
became one of the most powerful bankers of the Gilded Age.
The Tonsmeires enjoy talking about their ancestor's famous
tune around the holidays. Sometimes people laugh along or
wonder in disbelief.
" The fun part is trying to convince people that we really are
related to him, " Louis Tonsmeire says.
" I tell them I'm a natural-born ding-a-ling, " Sally Tonsmeire
adds with a chuckle.
Carolyn Crist is an Athens-based freelance writer.
www.georgiamagazine.org

13


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Georgia Magazine - December 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Georgia Magazine - December 2020

Contents
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - Intro
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - Cover1
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - Cover2
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - Contents
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 4
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 5
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 6
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 7
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 8
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 9
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 10
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 11
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 12
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 13
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 14
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 15
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 16
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 17
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 18
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Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 38
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - Cover3
Georgia Magazine - December 2020 - 40
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