MEDFORD — It’s a jaunty little Christmas number that works well at both kindergarten recitals and boozy holiday parties. And the story behind its creation was just so darn charming that decades ago the elders of Medford put the tale on a plaque right there in the city square, at the site of the bar where it all supposedly went down in 1850.
Medford, you see, was where James Pierpont is said to have written the quaint little carol we know as “Jingle Bells.”
There are some old problems with this claim, the ones at the center of the “Jingle Bell Wars” that have been going on for years with Savannah, Ga., which makes a similar claim and has its own plaque. But some new problems have come up — issues of social context as well as provenance, based on new research that answers some questions and raises others.
The latest controversy started when Kyna Hamill, a theater historian at Boston University and a research volunteer at the Medford Historical Society, got tired of the annual December calls from reporters asking about the Jingle Bell Wars. The conflicting stories made her want to know more: Where was the song first performed? And how?
Her hunt last year led her to a playbill deep in the Harvard archives, and some findings that are not quite as quaint as the story on the plaque, which has Pierpont writing the number in the Simpson Tavern while a Mrs. Otis Waterman looked on, inspired by the sleigh races that took place on Salem Street.
“One Horse Open Sleigh,” as it was originally called, was first performed in blackface, according to an 1857 playbill discovered by Hamill. And after further research, she could find no real proof that it was written in Medford or Savannah, or in 1850. If anything, there is some evidence that it was written in Boston, where Pierpont was living for a period in 1857, not too far from where it was first performed that year on a minstrel show at Ordway Hall on Washington Street.
Her findings, which were first reported in BU Today, Boston University’s official information site, tell the story of a song that was removed from its history after getting picked up by choirs in the 20th century, at a time when Christmas carols were moving from religious to secular, with Christian themes sharing the bill with songs about things like snow and sleighing and Santa.
“The story is the way it’s been romanticized and hidden from real historical research because it’s a sentimentalized Christmas song,” said Hamill, who points out that the song actually has nothing at all to do with Christmas. It was first performed in September.
“We knew Pierpont was the composer of many other minstrel songs, so why would ‘Jingle Bells’ not be in that tradition?” Hamill said. “Why does it get to sit on a shelf separate from the rest of his catalog?”
Some of the blame for that, she said, falls to a 1946 Boston Globe article about the song’s history, which details much of Pierpont’s history, including his many minstrel compositions, but fails to place “Jingle Bells” in that context.
It was that article that became the basis for Medford’s claim as the site of the composition, though the article said it was written in “the 1850’s” – a period when Pierpont bounced back and forth between Medford and Savannah, eventually marrying the mayor of Savannah’s daughter and fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War (this despite Pierpont’s own father being an outspoken abolitionist). But further accounts, Hamill said, seem to have lost the “ ’s ” in the retelling of the year it was written.
The plaque in Medford, on a building at 19 High St. that is now home to an optician and a driving school, lists 1850 as the date of composition, but Hamill says that would make it impossible that it was written in Medford. Her research — which has taken her from libraries in New York to a walking tour in Savannah — indicates that Pierpont was actually living in San Francisco at that time, running a daguerreotype shop that later burned down in a fire.
In Medford, which has long cherished its place in Christmas history, there is no rush to rewrite the plaque.
“It was written here, in the tavern,” said Mayor Stephanie M. Burke, who said she was aware of Hamill’s research. “We take full ownership of it. It’s got a long history, and we’re proud of it.”
She’s not the first Medford mayor to have to wade into the Jingle Bell Wars.
In the 1980s, the mayor of Savannah and Medford exchanged somewhat testy letters over the claim, arguing how best to interpret the 1946 Globe article.
Burke said there’s nothing to debate. The story belongs to Medford, she said, and she just told it to a class of third-graders who came to City Hall to hear her read the song a few weeks ago. “It’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”
On Wednesday night, Burke was planning to join others outside City Hall to go caroling through the square.
“ ‘Jingle Bells’ will be sung repeatedly,” Burke said.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.