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No. 1188:
William Billings

Today, we meet America's first significant composer. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Anyone who's done much choral singing has sung William Billings's music. Ask what music came out of Colonial America: we get Billings and little more. Few sophisticated musicians think much of him -- I love his stuff. Historians have made little effort to know Billings. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians runs to almost 20,000 pages and it gives Billings only a page and a half.

Billings was born in Boston in 1747. He was poor and uneducated -- he supported himself much of the time as a tanner. But he also took up music when he was young and was teaching choral singing by the age of 22.

Biographers call him a gargoyle. He was blind in one eye with a short leg and a withered arm. But that's only the beginning. He practiced what a contemporary called "an uncommon negligence of person," and he was hopelessly addicted to tobacco -- constantly inhaling handfuls of snuff. That may explain why he only lived to the age of 54. He had a stentorian, tobacco-damaged bass voice and he seemed uninterested in any easy beauty of sound.

At 24, Billings published his first book of choral pieces. He called it The New-England Psalm-Singer, and Paul Revere engraved the frontispiece for it. He published five more volumes and several pieces of sheet music.

The New-England Psalm-Singer was the first book of American music. It began a tradition of musical grass-roots choral singing in America and Billings knew what he'd done. He delayed publication over a year -- until he could print it on paper made in the Colonies. No English imports for Billings. The book included his song Chester, which rivaled Yankee Doodle as an anthem of revolution:

Let tyrants Shake their Iron rod
And slav'ry Clank her galling Chains
we fear them not we trust in god
New englands god for ever reigns.

Ben Franklin had said art would flow to the west -- to the new American Athens. What he got was Billings's grand idiosyncratic music -- no cultural continuity with anything. Billings's music emerged in the classical, rationalist age, with no trace of classical elegance. It's an artistic declaration of independence.

To know Billings, one should do more than just hear him; one should sing him -- four-square, almost-medieval harmonies, elaborate fugues, experiments with dissonance that foreshadow Charles Ives. He plays musical jokes, praises God, and dances into the erotic wonder of the Song of Solomon. Then he turns around and leaves us with one of the most exquisite short canons we've ever heard,

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound ...

The essential genius of America, and of Billings, was recognizing that full independence of Europe would eventually be gained only after we'd formed our own cultural roots.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

McKay, D. P., Billings, William. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Stanley Sadie, ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishers, Ltd., 1980, Vol. 2, pp. 703-705.

Silverman, K., A Cultural History of the American Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

This episode first aired in 1996. Since then, much better material is available online. These links are from April 14, 2013:

William Billings, Wikipedia.
Amaranth Publishing Company page.
This You Tube about Billings has When Jesus Wept in the background.