Think about it: you're a pioneer, a colonist in 18th-Century North America. You 'tame' the wilderness, growing crops, hunting, fishing, plying your handcraft trade, with nothing to work with but nature itself, your friends and family, and the strength God gave you. Come Sunday, you gather in the meetinghouse you've built with your own hands, to give thanks to your Creator for His bounty. What kind of music do you sing? Versified psalms, mostly, or hymns. What kind of instrument do you use? You can't afford an organ – who can go that high-tech in the wilderness? You use your own voice. And who composes the songs that stir your soul?
The English had their Handel, the Germans their Bach. New Englanders had William Billings, the lame, one-eyed Bostonian who became the first professional composer in English-speaking America. He also wrote the unofficial national anthem for what would become the United States.
William Billings, Eccentric Composer
Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns.
William Billings (1746-1800) started supporting his siblings and widowed mother when he was 13, by working as a tanner. What he knew about music was mostly self-taught. He must have been a wonderful autodidact – in 1769 he was teaching in singing school, and became successful as a musician, teacher, and composer.
Billings must have cut a strange figure on the streets of colonial Boston. He was congenitally blind in one eye, his arm was withered, and his legs were uneven. He limped, spoke loudly, and was known to take a lot of snuff. He was also, apparently, a bit of a slob when it came to dress and cleanliness. Although his compositions were enormously popular, Billings didn't make a lot of money from his music books, partly because there wasn't much in the way of copyright back then. His hymns ended up in other people's hymnals, with not a penny going his way. His friends tried to help him by finding him municipal jobs in Boston – at different times, Billings was a leather inspector, 'scavenger' (dustman), and 'hogreeve' (a sort of dogcatcher for stray swine). When he died, he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave, a sad end for someone responsible for such amazing canons as 'When Jesus Wept'.
In addition to writing the music, Billings usually came up with his own verses – as he did with his patriotic song, 'Let Tyrants Shake Their Iron Rod'. This song, to his tune 'Chester', was the runaway hit patriotic song of the American War of Independence, even more popular than 'Yankee Doodle' in some places.
For one thing, it's a bit more dignified singing about 'New England's God' than about macaronis.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton, too,
With Prescott and Cornwallis join'd,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin'd.
When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc'd,
Their ships were Shatter'd in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.
Billings tended to paraphrase Scripture in his texts. In his famous patriotic song, 'Lamentation Over Boston', he wrote, 'By the rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept. We wept when we remembered thee, O Boston.' This sort of thing is a little jarring to the modern ear, but appears to have gone down well in the 18th Century.
The opening stanza of 'Chester' seems to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit over the top. 'New England's God'? Did the Puritans have the patent? But, as one musical historian put it, '... this is no more provincial than Isaac Watts' paraphrase of Psalm 100: Sing to the Lord with joyful voice... The British Isles shall send the noise...'1
The anthem is nothing if not topical. Who were these people, anyway? Howe, Burgoyne, Clinton, Prescott and Cornwallis were British generals. Poor Richard Prescott had the dubious distinction of having been captured by the Americans – twice. (The second time, he was in bed when it happened.) Obviously, these villains were plotting 'our Overthrow'. Infernal stuff. Bostonians were proud of their successes on land and sea, from the battles of Lexington and Concord to the actions of privateers in seizing British naval vessels.
What God had to do with this is not clear – but, as we have to rely on hymn writers and preachers as His spokespersons, we tend to get a rather split view of His sympathies. No doubt the British were singing 'Rule, Britannia' on the ships being seized.
The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet'rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen'rals yield to beardless Boys.
What grateful Off'ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev'ry Chord.
As a patriotic song, 'Chester' was stirring stuff, and about what you'd expect from the late 18th Century. The tune continued to be popular, though, even after the war was over. Billings' hymns spread southward along the Appalachians, made popular in shape-note hymnbooks such as The Sacred Harp, where it is Number 479. Shape notes were a way to teach congregations full of non-music-readers to sing. The shape notes show the position of the note on the 'sol-fa' scale. 'Sacred Harp' singing continues to be practised in churches and at gatherings in the southern US today.
Shape-note singers forgot about the war connection, and sang a more peaceful and pious version of the words:
Let the high heav'ns your songs invite,
These spacious fields of brilliant light,
Where sun and moon and planets roll,
And stars that glow from pole to pole.
Sun, moon and stars convey Thy praise
Round the whole earth and never stand,
So when Thy truth began its race,
It touched and glanced on ev'ry hand.
If shape-note singing were to be practised across the water in Britain, these lyrics are ones everybody in the choir could probably agree on.
For Further Information
To hear what 'Chester' sounds like as a shape-note hymn, listen to these 'Sacred Harp' singers in action.
To find more of Billings' works in shape-note notation, check out this list.
To hear (and be astounded by) the quality of these works by a self-taught composer when they aren't being sung by mountain congregations, look up 'William Billings' on Youtube. You will be glad you did. The first US composer is enjoying a revival among 'early music' ensembles.