William Billings

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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9 comments for “William Billings

  1. JD
    October 6, 2010 at 08:28

    “an uncommon negligence of person,”

    that’s a wonderful phrase, I fits one or two people I know (including me after a bout of autoinebriation)

    Mr William Billings – The Continental Harmony

  2. October 6, 2010 at 09:37

    Thanks so much, Bill and I second JD here.

  3. October 6, 2010 at 11:29

    Virtually all of Billings’ music was written for four-part chorus, singing a cappella.

    Good God! That is a description of that ghastly American choral phenomenon, Barbershop.

    Please say it isn’t so.

  4. MadPiper
    October 6, 2010 at 12:46

    My Dear Gruff, it isn’t the same and I do understand the revulsion. Different harmonies and female voices make all the difference!

  5. Rossa
    October 6, 2010 at 16:12

    As far as I can remember Billings wrote what is known as shape note music sung as Sacred Harmony. In the UK this is known as West Gallery which is an interesting musical format which I joined back in the 90s. It is four part harmony and great fun to learn.
    Rossa’s Mum
    PS not quite the same as barbershop!!

  6. October 6, 2010 at 17:06

    Hey, I’m learning things here.

  7. MadPiper
    October 6, 2010 at 17:38

    Tit for tat! 🙂

  8. Rossa
    October 6, 2010 at 21:26

    What my Mum doesn’t tell you is that my sister has sung barbershop for the last 12 years in a chorus, 2nd City Sound in B’ham and in a quartet. So it’s in the family…soooory!

    In mitigation, if it helps, we have a violinist in the Liverpool Philarmonic and a sound engineer who has done everyone from Aretha Franklin to Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder to Genesis and Foreigner. Madonna, Michael Jackson and the Stones. Mind you he also did Duran Duran…nuff said!

    A well balanced family?

  9. Rossa
    October 6, 2010 at 21:32

    Should have said that the sound engineer, my favourite uncle of course, also met Jimmy Hendrix when he (uncle) was 17.

    He rather spoiled things this year by getting a caravan. Says it’s the hormones kicking in as he’s just turned 60. Bought from a charity shop in France and tows it with a Kangoo…how the mighty hero of mine has fallen!

    Oh and he make drums out of recycled gas bottles. If you ever come across a Kool drum it’s one of his. See here…


    and on Youtube.

    That’s another fiver Jimmy, thanks!

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