Unearthing the true origin of “Jingle Bells”

Was it really written in Medford, Mass.?

By Joel Brown | BU Today

Kyna Hamill pictured here amid holiday decorations at the Medford Historical Society, where she is a volunteer. Her research in theatre history has undercut a cherished local tale about the origins of “Jingle Bells.” Photo by Cydney Scott
Playbill for the first known performance of “The One Horse Open Sleigh” at Orway Hall on Washington Street in Boston, on Sept. 15, 1857. Courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library, Harvard Theatre Collection, American Minstrel Show Collection 1823–1947, (MS THR 556)

An American Classic

Today, “Jingle Bells” is one of the most recognizable American melodies. It has been recorded thousands of times — by everyone from the Beatles to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and from Luciano Pavarotti to the Partridge Family to Pearl Jam. Last December, mildly concerned that messing with the song’s backstory could ruffle some Medford feathers, Hamill presented her initial findings to the local historical society.

Left, One of the only known photos of James Lord Pierpont. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Right, the opening bars of the original 1857 sheet music for “Jingle Bells” under its earliest title, “The One Horse Open Sleigh.” Courtesy Library of Congress.
Johnny Pell appeared many times in blackface as part of Ordway’s Aeolians. Courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library, Harvard Theatre Collection, HTC Photographs 3.528

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