Yesterday's Magazette

1 – They Wrote The Songs

They Wrote The Songs

By Madonna Dries Christensen

Ask a group of people to name a favorite Christmas carol and White Christmas will surely be mentioned. Do you know who wrote it? Ironically, the Christmas classic came from a Russian Jew, born in Siberia. After emigrating with his parents at age five, Israel Baline grew up spending Christmases with Irish neighbors. He held dear the memories of a towering tree and other festivities. In 1928, known as Irving Berlin, the composer found his three-week-old-son dead in his crib on Christmas Day, a probable victim of what is now called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

From that day on, Berlin dreaded the holiday season. He and his wife, a Catholic, had three more children, all girls, but while the children were busy with Christmas toys the parents slipped away to visit their firstborn’s grave. When Berlin wrote White Christmas in 1942, he understood the loneliness of people yearning for a Christmas “…like the ones I used to know.”

A few years later, another tune, The Christmas Song, competed for top tune of the holiday season. Mel Torme explained the origin of the song he wrote with Robert Wells. Arriving at his friend’s house in the San Fernando Valley on a blistering July day in 1945, Torme entered and called for Bob but got no answer. Wandering over to the piano, he saw on a notepad the words: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire; Jack frost nipping at your nose; Yuletide carols being sun by a choir, and folks dressed up like Eskimos.

When Bob appeared, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he explained he’d written the verse because, “It’s so damn hot today, all I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” The two men sat down at the piano and, in under an hour, completed the words and music. Nat King Cole recorded The Christmas Song in 1946. We’ve been hankering for roasted chestnuts at Christmastime ever since, although most of us have probably never had roasted chestnuts.

The song beginning, “Over the river and through the wood,” originated as a Thanksgiving poem titled A Boy’s Thanksgiving. It appeared in 1844 in Volume Two of Flowers for Children. The author, Lydia Maria Child, wrote the verse as a remembrance of going to her grandfather’s house for Thanksgiving. Child gained fame as a writer at age 22 when her novel, Hobomok, created a scandal with its portrayal of a Native American protagonist in love with a white woman. She also authored the best-selling The Frugal Housewife, later renamed The American Frugal Housewife to distinguish it from a British publication with a similar name. She published The Mother’s Book and A Little Girl’s Own Book, and Juvenile Miscellany, a children’s magazine.

Always a staunch defender of women’s rights, Child turned to the issue of anti-slavery with Appeal for the Class of Americans Called African. That publication lost her a majority of devoted readers, and sales of her domestic advice book waned, too.  Undaunted, she edited the Anti-Slavery Standard, wrote a series of anti-slavery pamphlets, and edited the autobiography of ex-slave Harriet Jacobs. After the Civil War, she edited and published The Freedmen’s Book for education of newly-freed slaves. She later turned her attention to a survey of the history of the world’s religions and wrote inspirational essays. In several fictional and political books, she took on issues of justice for Native Americans and African Americans.

One of the earliest American women to earn a living as a writer, her scholarly works are mostly unknown. But her simple verse about going over the river and through the wood has endured for more than one hundred fifty years. Most of us couldn’t name the author, but we know how to sing it.

Medford, Massachusetts, has been established as the birthplace of another holiday song composer, but where he wrote the song is the subject of a years-old dispute. James Pierpont’s descendents say he wrote several bad songs touting the Confederate cause, including We Conquer Or Die and Strike For The South, and one good song, One Horse Open Sleigh (Jingle Bells), but they cannot establish where he lived when he wrote the holiday song.

Born in 1822, Pierpont belonged to the aristocratic family that produced financier J. P. Morgan. Pierpont has been described as a free spirit, a wanderer who ran away to sea at age 14 and later participated in California’s Gold Rush. During the Civil War, he joined a Confederate cavalry regiment in Savannah, going against the grain of his family’s views on abolition. He married a Savannah belle and lived there and raised a family.

That’s where Savannahans say he wrote the song. The story goes that Pierpont, the organist at a Unitarian Church, one day visited the home of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who owned the only piano in town. After playing the tune for his hostess, she declared it a merry little jingle and told him he should have success with it. In 1857, he published and copyrighted One Horse Open Sleigh.

The folks in Medford tell a different story. Their account, related to the Boston Globe in 1946, came from Stella Howe. She says that in about 1850 Pierpont wrote the song while sitting in a tavern watching a sleigh race pass on the street outside. Her great-aunt, Mary Gleason Waterman, ran Simpson’s Tavern and boardinghouse, where Pierpont lived. He sat down at the only piano in town and wrote the song. Note that both versions of the story, north and south, have a female named Waterman who had the only piano in town.

The Medford story went unchallenged until 1969, when a Savannah man, Milton Rahn, stirred up musical trouble. He says he was listening to his daughter play Jingle Bells on the piano one day. Curious about who wrote the tune, he glanced at the sheet music and found the name J. Pierpont. Rahn had researched the church’s history and knew that John Pierpont, Jr. had been pastor from 1852 to 1858. He found letters Reverend Pierpont had written home to his family in Medford, stating that his brother, James, now resided in Savannah and worked as a music teacher and church organist. Further research told Rahn that Pierpont married in Savannah in 1857, weeks before copyrighting Jingle Bells.

In 1985, Savannah Mayor John Rousakis had a Jingle Bells marker erected in the square across from the church, and proclaimed that the tune belonged to Savannah. When word drifted north, Medford’s mayor, Michael McGlynn, wrote a letter to Rousakis declaring Medford as the unequivocal site where Jingle Bells was composed in 1850. Rousakis replied, “James L. Pierpont is still here with us (meaning Laurel Grove Cemetery). I’m sure he will join us in spirit when we finally and formally proclaim Savannah, Georgia, as the birthplace of Jingle Bells.”

Although Mayor Rousakis has since died, the debate is resurrected now and then. Mayor McGlynn says he’s comfortable with Medford’s position on the matter. Folks in Savannah still refute the Medford claim. Why would Pierpont, who never made much money, write the song in 1850 and hold onto to it until 1857? He could have marketed it and made some money.

Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, might have the answer and the last word. He says he found proof of Medford being the song’s birthplace while researching his book. A New England newspaper from the early 1840s mentioned One Horse Open Sleigh as debuting in Medford at a Unitarian Thanksgiving church service. The song proved so popular, that Pierpont gave a repeat performance at Christmas. Collins concluded that Pierpont probably wrote his song in Medford, but did not realize its potential until he lived in the south. The warmer climate, where snow is a rarity, was the key to the song’s universal appeal.

The tune’s origin is unimportant to most of us. When we start pining for family and roasted chestnuts and a white Christmas, Jingle Bells resounds across the land.

Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh…

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