‘Jingle’ Jangle

Good morning, it’s Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. On this date in 1965, the ground crew at Mission Control heard something from outer space that — for a few seconds — made them fear a UFO was stalking Gemini 6, which carried astronauts Walter Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford.

The day before, Gemini 6 had rendezvoused in space with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell aboard Gemini 7. The exercise had required meticulous pilot control and utmost computer precision, and its success left NASA officials in Houston feeling good about the mission. But as Gemini 6 was about to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, Stafford contacted Mission Control to report something strange in the night sky.

“We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit,” he reported. “Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. … You just might let me pick up that thing.”

Wally Schirra later reported that they could hear the tension in the breathing of the guys at Mission Control — until Stafford added the punch line: “I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.” With that Schirra pulled out the harmonica he had snuck onboard and played the chorus of “Jingle Bells.”

It was, as far as anyone knows, the first Christmas song played in outer space.

In choosing “Jingle Bells” to punctate his orbital holiday-season prank, Wally Schirra settled on a popular holiday tune that was already more than a century old. It had been submitted for publication in 1857 by a man named James Lord Pierpont, a 35-year-old organist and youth choir director at a Unitarian Church in Savannah, Ga.

Its initial title was “The One Horse Open Sleigh,” and in the original version the chorus is a bit slower with a more classical melody, apparently inspired by Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” And though he was active in the practice of his own religious faith, James Pierpont’s lyrics don’t reference Jesus’s birth or God — or even Santa Claus, as Wally Schirra did. In this utterly secular song, that’s not Saint Nick guiding a one-horse sled: It’s a young man out squiring a young woman.

But why is a resident of Savannah writing about riding over snow-covered fields (“hills” in the original score) in the first place? Well, that’s a story in itself.

James Pierpont was born April 25, 1822 in Boston, the scion of well-connected New England patriots on both sides of his family. His father, the Rev. John Pierpont, was the pastor at Boston’s famed Hollis Street Church. It originally was associated with the Congregational denomination; later it affiliated with the Unitarian Church. In both incarnations, it was a hotbed of abolitionism.

As a boy, James Pierpont was sent away to boarding school in New Hampshire. He apparently didn’t take to it, running away at age 14 to sign up on a whaling ship. Before going, he penned a nostalgic letter to his mother about sleighing-riding in the woods. At some point in his seafaring life, he joined the U.S. Navy and sailed into San Francisco.

That port town must have been more agreeable to James, because when the Gold Rush was announced he headed back there, leaving behind his wife and children. Pierpont did not strike it rich out West. Quite the contrary: His first recorded song is a cheeky 1852 ditty, “The Returned Californian.” (Its first lines give the flavor of the song: “Oh! I’m going far away from my creditors now. I ain’t the tin to pay ’em and they’re kicking up a row.”)

James’ life went from farce to tragedy when his wife died in 1853. Looking for a new start, he joined his older brother, John Pierpont Jr., who had followed in his father’s footsteps and had been called to Savannah to take over the city’s Unitarian Church.

John Pierpont also shared his father’s politics, but abolition wasn’t a popular stance in Savannah; by 1860, the Unitarian congregation had closed its doors and John moved back to the North. James Pierpont did not accompany his brother because by then he had a new family.

His second wife was Eliza Jane Purse, the daughter of Savannah’s mayor and the sister of John Pierpont’s friend Thomas Purse Jr. When war broke out, James Pierpont — the son and brother of Northern abolitionists and men of God — enlisted in the Confederate cause, serving as a clerk in a Georgia cavalry regiment. His talent was music, not fighting, and he penned several songs for the Southern army.

It’s a cliché to say that the Civil War pitted brother against brother and fathers against sons, but in the case of the Pierponts it was literally true: John Pierpont Sr., served as a Union Army chaplain. After the war, James seems to have lost his zest for writing music: No new tunes by him appear after that time. He died in Florida in 1893, and is buried, per his request, in Savannah’s Laurel Grove North Cemetery next to his brother-in-law Thomas Pilkington Purse Jr., a 21-year-old private who was killed in July 1861, two months after enlisting, in the First Battle of Bull Run.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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