In a day when beauty and celebrity mixed with a jot of education are confused with substance there is the curious person of Boston born William Billings (1746-1800). Billings was uneducated and blue collar; his profession was that of tanner. It was a foul smelling profession and the stench clung to clothing and person. Billings lacked an attractive appearance. He was blind in one eye with a short leg and a withered arm. He practiced what a contemporary called “an uncommon negligence of person,” and he was hopelessly addicted to tobacco — constantly inhaling handfuls of snuff.
But could he write music!
Virtually all of Billings’ music was written for four-part chorus, singing a cappella. His many hymns and anthems were published mostly in book-length collections:
• The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770)
• The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778)
• Music in Miniature (1779)
• The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement (1781)
• The Suffolk Harmony (1786)
• The Continental Harmony (1794)
Chester was a rival to Yankee Doodle in popularity as a patriotic tune during the American Revolution.
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.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot 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.
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.
There has been a revival of interest in his music in the late 20th century with such diverse groups as the Boston Camerata, Waverly Consort, and His Majestie’s Clerkes issuing recordings.
William Billings died at the age of 53 after spending his last years in poverty, the result of changing musical fashions and a lack of copyright protection of his work.
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