It is undisputed that a man named James Lord Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells,” but there is some controversy about when he wrote it. Some claim that he penned it in 1850, at a tavern in Medford, Massachusetts. Whether or not that is true, he didn’t publish it until September, 1857, when he was serving as organist and music director of the Unitarian Society of Savannah, Georgia, where his brother John was pastor.
As the country moved toward war, Savannah got too hot for Rev. John Pierpont—whose abolitionist preaching was not popular—and the minister decamped for the North in 1859. But James married a local girl, and stayed where he was.
Unitarians have a proud heritage, but some, like James, do a poor job detecting the moral arc of the universe. He joined the Confederate Army, and applied his musical talents to such ditties as “Our Battle Flag,” “Strike for the South,” and “We Conquer or Die.”
Earlier on in his career, James had had a bad experience during the California gold rush. Some indication of his questionable character may be found in his song, “The Returned Californian”:
Oh, I’m going far away from my creditors just now,
I ain’t the tin to pay ’em and they’re kicking up a row;
I ain’t one of those lucky ones that works for ‘Uncle Sam,’
There’s no chance for speculation and the mines ain’t worth a (‘d–‘) Copper.
There’s my tailor vowing vengeance and he swears he’ll give me Fitts,
And Sheriff’s running after me with pockets full of writs;
And which ever way I turn, I am sure to meet a dun,
So I guess the best thing I can do, is just to cut and run.
Oh! I wish those ‘tarnel critters that wrote home about the gold
Were in the place the Scriptures say ‘is never very cold;’
For they told about the heaps of dust and lumps so mighty big,
But they never said a single word how hard they were to dig.
So I went up to the mines and I helped to turn a stream,
And got trusted on the strength of that delusive golden dream;
But when we got to digging we found ’twas all a sham,
And we who dam’d the rivers by our creditors were damn’d.
Oh! I’m going far away but I don’t know where I’ll go,
I oughter travel homeward but they’ll laugh at me I know;
For I told ’em when I started I was bound to make a pile,
But if they could only see mine now I rather guess they’d smile.
If of these United States I was the President,
No man that owed another should ever pay a cent;
And he who dunn’d another should be banished far away,
And attention to the pretty girls is all a man should pay.