The Twentieth Century Looks at William Billings

Editor’s Note: When Raymond C. Hamrick returned to Sacred Harp singing after World War II he was immediately drawn to the music of the eighteenth-century New England composer, William Billings. Billings also piqued Hamrick’s scholarly curiosity as this article—first published in The Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News 1, no. (May 7, 1965)—demonstrates. In it, Hamrick champions Billings by reviewing then-recent scholarly writing which had initiated a positive reappraisal of Billings’s work, following a century and a half during which the composer was largely ignored or maligned.

Hamrick’s love of Billings’s music, and his awareness of its increasingly celebrated status, influenced The Sacred Harp tunebook and efforts to promote Sacred Harp singing. In 1965, Billings’s “Chester” (p. 479 in The Sacred Harp) was only included in Joseph Stephen James’s 1911 Original Sacred Harp, the tunebook Hamrick’s South Georgia Sacred Harp Singing Convention then used, not in the more popular Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision. At Hamrick’s urging, the song was restored to the Denson Revision the following year. Hugh McGraw, who headed the 1966 music committee, regularly led “Chester” and other Billings songs when promoting Sacred Harp at folk festivals over course of the next decade, particularly at the Bicentennial Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1976, when McGraw frequently retold the story Hamrick recounts below about the song’s popularity during the American Revolutionary War. Hamrick again wrote about Billings in 1996 in an article reprinted elsewhere in this issue of the Newsletter.

Since the first years of my association with Sacred Harp music, the few pieces therein that bear the name of William Billings as composer have excited my interest and stirred a curiosity about the man that has only been satisfied in recent years. Highly qualified researchers have explored the American scene in detail and a picture of the man and his times has emerged—a picture that changes some previously held ideas and provides a fascinating array of newly-discovered facets of Billings the melodist, the poet, and the man.

William Billings was born in Boston in 1746. He wrote and published his first book of music in 1770 at the age of twenty-four. This was the New-England Psalm-Singer, printed by Paul Revere. The advent of the Revolutionary War disrupted his musical activities for a time, but one of his tunes, “Chester” (found in the James edition of the Harp), became the most popular song sung by the American soldiers. The words used were not those with which we are familiar today but were strongly martial in feelings. The [second] verse will give a clear picture:

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescott and Cornwallis join’d
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

The first printing of William Billings’s “Chester,” with his Revolutionary War–era lyrics included. In The Singing Master’s Assistant (1781), Archives and Manuscript Dept., Pitts Theology Library, Emory University.

The Preface to the New-England Psalm-Singer contains the following statement:

To the generous subscribers to this book. The author, to his great loss, having deferred the publication of these sheets for 18 months to have them put upon American paper hopes the delay will be pardoned; and the good ladies, heads of the families, into whose hands they may fall, will zealously endeavor to furnish the paper mills with all the fragments of linen they can possibly afford. Paper being the vehicle of literature and literature the spring and security of human happiness.1

Frontispiece of William Billings’s New-England Psalm-Singer (1770), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thus we see Billings at the age of twenty-four, a dedicated patriot, a poet, and musician. Added to these were the undisputed physical infirmities that beset him—the withered arm, the lame leg, the partly blind eye, and the rasping un-musical voice. Add to this an unflagging ambition and enthusiasm and we have a picture of Billings the man.

But what of Billings the composer? What of the charges that his music was crude, archaic, illiterate; his fuging tunes pitiful imitations of the classic fugue, merely an American innovation without roots or culture? Dr. J. Murray Barbour, in his excellent book, Church Music of William Billings, has this to say in rebuttal:

Just how illiterate was Billings? It is the opinion of the present writer that Billings’ detractors are almost totally wrong in their criticisms. His works do contain certain glaring faults and weaknesses, but they are seldom those of which he has been accused. To call him illiterate betrays a lack of familiarity with his music or else a failure to comprehend what musical illiteracy is. Even his spelling was good—excellent for the time and place. He used correctly eleven Italian terms for temp and mood: Adagio, Allegro, Affettuoso, Divoto, Grave, Lamentations, Largo, Maestoso, Presto, Vigoroso, and Vivace … his metrical signatures include 6/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 2/2, and 3/2; these were almost always used correctly, especially in his latest works. It is true that Billings’ first collection, the New-England Psalm-Singer, contained many errors of notation, the most heinous being the omission of accidentals, but for this the engraver was at least partly to blame. He was Paul Revere who probably does deserve to be called musically illiterate, however skilled he may have been in equitation. … The true Billings deserves our respect. The texts for his psalm tunes form a first-rate anthology of 18th century religious poetry. For his anthems he was equally skilled at choosing texts and, at times, had what amounted to a genius at constructing them, an act of creation and synthesis in which he far excelled his colleagues on either side of the Atlantic.2

Criticisms of Billings’s music frequently refer to his habit of changing time values within the framework of the tune. The custom of the time was to use one metrical signature for an entire tune, and the rhythm adhered strictly to this signature. In the anthems, major divisions were shown by a change in the signature, but hardly ever was the changing rhythm of a short phrase or word so marked. Billings was the exception, and it was this attention to the minute details of his music that lends it so much appeal to the singer—and the listener.

As to the fuguing tune complaint, the idea that the idiom was conceived and carried out almost entirely by Billings is without foundation in fact. “Fuguing” or “Fuging Tune” is a shortened version of the original term “Fuging Psalm Tune” which was used in eighteenth-century England. This type of music bears no family relationship to the classical fugue form nor was it intended to have such. “Fuguing,” or imitative writing was the normal musical language of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. It appeared in the works of the masters of the period—Tallis, Tye, Byrd and also in the congregational hymn books of England and Scotland. The Puritan rise in England brought an end to its spread but in later years it took root in the American colonies and by the time Billings arrived on the scene, the English fuguing tune had been familiar for longer than a decade. Billings poured his ideas into a familiar mold. Of his six books only thirty-six fuguing tunes appeared in them. This was a very small part—8 percent—of his output. So, it can be clearly stated that he was neither the originator nor the leading exponent of the style.3

As to the “uncouth, archaic” definition, Billings wrote four “singable” parts—for the singers. He saw harmony as counterpoint, not as vertical blocks of chords. His melodies were strong and tuneful, and while his harmony was strongly diatonic and triadic (6 percent of his chords were sevenths), yet his melodious part-writing gave rise to combinations of notes that were quite complex.

Album cover of the Robert Shaw Chorale’s A Treasury of Easter Songs, which includes “Easter Anthem” exactly as written by William Billings.

We have seen in recent years a rising interest in Billings’s works, both by composers and conductors. That which was once labeled crude and uncouth has become valued for the very qualities once derided. The Robert Shaw Chorale has recorded several tunes exactly as written—“Rose of Sharon,” “Easter Anthem,” “When Jesus Wept,” “Shepherds Carol,” “A Virgin Unspotted,” and “The Bird.” The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has recorded “David’s Lamentation.” Sheet music of most of these is now available and church choir directors often make use of them. This writer had the pleasure recently of singing in a large church choir which was presenting “Easter Anthem” as special seasonal music. Crude and archaic it may or may not be, but after nearly 200 years its audience appeal is still undeniably strong.

As with many things in this world of ours, time has brought belated appreciation of Billings’s genius. This is not to imply that he was a great composer, but, to quote Barbour, “he had perhaps more genius than talent.”4 Also, he had enthusiasm—an enthusiasm that helped lift the church music of his day from the pitiful state into which it had fallen; an enthusiasm that is as apparent today as when he first set pen to paper.

Hans Nathan says, “There is freshness, a naive vigor about it … the melodic style had popular appeal since it included familiar elements while preserving a measure of uniqueness. Thus, we hear reminiscences of Irish jigs, English and Scotch folk song, English tunes of fashion, eighteenth-century dance patterns, and even elements of eighteenth-century art music. The 6/4 and 6/8 “moods” … inspired him to write cheerful and festive tunes—perhaps his best—that resemble English carols.”5 What he contributed made him a representative American of whom we can be very proud.


Thanks to Debra Madera of Pitts Theology Library for digitizing a copy of “Chester” and to M. Patrick Graham for permission to include the scan in this issue as an illustration. Thanks to Tim Reynolds for permission to reprint this article from the Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp News.

  1. William Billings, The New-England Psalm-Singer: Or, American Chorister (Edes and Gill, 1770). []
  2. James Murray Barbour, The Church Music of William Billings (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1960), xiii, 13. []
  3. Irving Lowens, “The Origins of the American Fuging Tune,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 6, no. 1 (April 1, 1953): 43–52. []
  4. Barbour, The Church Music of William Billings, 138. [Barbour’s comment echoes that of Billings’s friend and contemporary, Reverend William Bentley, who described Billings as having “more genius than taste.”—Ed.] []
  5. Hans Nathan, “Introduction,” in The Continental Harmony, by William Billings, ed. Hans Nathan (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), xvii. []

About Raymond C. Hamrick

Raymond C. Hamrick (1915–2014) served as a member of the Music Committee that edited The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition and was president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. A watchmaker by trade, Hamrick was a prolific composer. In addition to his six songs in The Sacred Harp, hundreds of his compositions are collected in The Georgian Harmony.
This entry was posted in Hamrick on The Sacred Harp, Harpeth Valley News, Read the Old Paths. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Twentieth Century Looks at William Billings

  1. Johanna Fabke says:

    Many thanks for sharing this essay—a much appreciated legacy that enhances my appreciation of two remarkable men.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *