Jingle Bells in Medford

 19th Century Salem Street, Medford, MA
19th Century Salem Street, Medford, MA

Growing up in Medford, MA, I often crossed Salem Street on my way to school and to visit friends. It wasn’t a very pretty street and like most major suburban thoroughfares, it had its fair share of gas stations, used car dealers, and home heating oil distribution companies. It did (and still does) have several good eating establishments and ethnic grocery stores. Salem Street, though, was famous for something else: one horse open sleigh rides in winter, which allegedly served as the inspiration for a local songwriter in the mid-nineteenth century.

As children, my friends and I would spend hours at the library and the historical society combing through the archives, amazed at how much the city had changed since the 1800s. In high school, I met Dr. Joseph Valeriani, head of the Medford Historical Society and chairman of the of the social studies department at Medford High School. Even though he was an administrator, Joe insisted on teaching one class: advanced placement history. Joe would interview every student applying for entrance into the course, but an applicant’s interest in local history went a long way in Joe’s decision. In that class, we read two textbooks and sixteen (no kidding) supplementary books including such titles as Gone with the Wind, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Profiles in Courage. We covered both American history and Medford history. It was in this class that Joe taught us about the origin of Jingle Bells.

James Pierpont (1822–1893), son of the minister of the Unitarian Congregation in Medford, MA, published a song called the One Horse Open Sleigh in 1857, a piece he was heard to play as far back as 1850 at Simpson’s Tavern in Medford Square. Like many old tales, details are always a bit sketchy and often contradictory. We do know, though, that he later moved to Savannah, GA and was living there when the song was officially published.

Simpson's Tavern, Medford, MA
Simpson's Tavern, Medford, MA

It should be no surprise that both Medford, MA and Savannah, GA lay claim to Jingle Bells. Having spent a good deal of time in both cities, I’ve tried to be impartial, but have to admit that I never saw snow in Savannah, but I can’t deny them “sharing” some of the claim either. Nonetheless, if it weren’t such an important and inspirational part of our culture, there would be no dispute.

Though my friend Joe is no longer with us, I often think of him this time of year, especially when I visit Medford every Christmas. Perhaps one day I’ll even see a one horse open sleigh on Salem Street. Until then, I’ll continue to tell my boys the story of Jingle Bells and recite the lyrics every year.

Best wishes during the holiday season.

-Rob Ciampa, Palaverer

One Horse Open Sleigh

James Pierpont, 1857

One Horse Open Sleigh Sheet Music
Original Publication

Dashing thro’ the snow,
In a one-horse open sleigh,
O’er the hills we go,
Laughing all the way;
Bells on bob tail ring,
Making spirits bright,
Oh what sport to ride and sing
A sleighing song to night.

Chorus:
Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.
Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.

A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank;
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And we, we got upsot.

Chorus

A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.

Chorus

Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls to night
And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bob tailed bay
Two forty as his speed.
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack, you’ll take the lead.

Chorus

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