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Staking claim to a carol Georgians say 'Jingle Bells' is their song -- not Medford's

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Dashing in the sun, through oaks and Spanish moss. Sleigh riding's no fun, when there's no snow to cross.

Could "Jingle Bells" really be a song of the South?

It's not hard to see why balmy Savannah has a tough time selling the Christmas carol as a native creation. Or why the claim makes folks in Medford, Mass. -- hometown of the song's composer -- cry humbug.

This much is known: James Pierpont was the organist at Savannah's Unitarian Universalist Church in 1857 when he copyrighted the song "One Horse Open Sleigh," a title later changed to "Jingle Bells."

One of the most popular American Christmas songs, "Jingle Bells" made Pierpont a pre-Civil War one-hit wonder. But did he write it in Savannah as a piece of homesick, holiday nostalgia? Or did he compose it years before in Medford, not seeing the tune as a moneymaker until he drifted south?

"No one really knows where he was when he wrote it -- that's the rub," said Constance Turner, Pierpont's great-granddaughter, who lives in Coronado, Calif. "Evidently, James was quite the free spirit and he published some bad songs and one, at least, we know of that's a very good song."

Medford claimed the carol without challenge until 1969, when Milton Rahn, a Savannah Unitarian, announced he had linked the song's composer to Georgia.

Rahn was listening to his daughter play "Jingle Bells" on the piano when he glanced at the sheet music and noticed the composer's name: J. Pierpont.

He had earlier found letters John Pierpont Jr., the church's pastor from 1852 to 1858, had written home to Medford saying his brother, James, had come to Savannah as an organist and music teacher.

Further research found the composer had married in Savannah in 1857 weeks before he copyrighted "Jingle Bells."

"I saw this as something to help us get publicity for the church," Rahn said.

Pierpont, who lived from 1822 to 1893, was said to be a wanderer who ran away to sea at 14 and later went to California during the Gold Rush. During the Civil War, he joined a Confederate cavalry regiment in Savannah, bucking his family's staunch abolitionist views.

Though Pierpont came from an aristocratic family -- his nephew was the financier John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan -- he never made much money himself.

His other songs included several touting the Confederate cause, with titles such as "We Conquer Or Die" and "Strike For The South." But none struck a chord like "Jingle Bells."

After Savannah erected a "Jingle Bells" marker across from the church in 1985, then-Mayor John Rousakis declared the tune a Savannah song.

To folks in Medford, that made Rousakis and Rahn a pair of grinches out to steal their Christmas history.

A series of not-so-jolly exchanges followed.

"In the words of Shakespeare, it is our intention to keep our `honor from corruption,' " Medford's mayor, Michael McGlynn, wrote in a 1989 letter to Rousakis. "We unequivocally state that `Jingle Bells' was composed . . . in the Town of Medford during the year 1850!"

Rousakis fired back with an equally strong, unyielding letter.

"James L. Pierpont is still here with us," Rousakis wrote, noting that the composer was buried in Savannah. "I am sure [Pierpont] will join us in spirit when we finally and formally proclaim Savannah, Ga., as the birthplace of `Jingle Bells."'

According to those in Medford, Pierpont was inspired by the winter sleigh races down snow-filled Salem Street and wrote the song at the Simpson Tavern, a boarding house that at the time had the only piano in town.

Ace Collins, author of the 2001 book "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas," says he found more proof of Medford being the rightful birthplace while researching his chapter on "Jingle Bells."

Collins said he found a New England newspaper from the early 1840s that mentioned "One Horse Open Sleigh" debuting in Medford at a Thanksgiving church service. The song proved so popular, he said, that Pierpont gave a repeat performance at Christmas.

When it comes to which city deserves bragging rights, Collins gets diplomatic.

Pierpont may have written his song in Medford, he says, but Savannah made him realize its universal appeal.

"Savannah was the key," Collins said. "If it can play in Savannah, where snow was a novelty, it can play anywhere."

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