Few American composers have enjoyed such a riot of popularity in their day and suffered such a vacuum of neglect beyond it as William Billings (1746-1800). In his brief, vigorous life he published six books of music, developed a “fuging” style of composition, spearheaded the second revival of New England singing, sired a large family, and produced a song that became the Rebel anthem. He wrote, taught, and sang in an authentic revolutionary mode, an original, imaginative, unorthodox and natural style perfectly suited to his temperament and times. He was the Father of New England music as well as the kapellmeister of the Sons of Liberty, and, excepting music historians, few today realize that his anthem “Chester” was almost as popular among soldiers and civilians in the 1770’s as “Yankee Doodle.”
Billings was a tanner by trade and a gargoyle by birth. He had a withered arm, a short leg, and a sightless eye; he was unusually negligent of his appearance; he took snuff in gargantuan amounts. But his shortcomings and idiosyncrasies did not prevent him from chalking music notation on the hides hanging in his shop, from blaring his stentorian bass in chapel and classroom, or from cultivating the friendships of such eminent Bostonians as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. He was an original, a self-styled iconoclast. “I don’t think myself confin’d to any Rules for Composition laid down by any that went before me,” he boomed, believing it best “that every Composer be his own Carver.” However much he actually did respect musical tradition, this boundlessly enthusiastic amateur reveled in the role of a revolutionary who took up arms not at Lexington but on the battlefield of music.
In 1778 Billings wrote new lyrics to a spiritual text by Dr. Isaac Watts he had published in The New England Psalm-Singer (1770) and gave the war its most stirring anthem, “Chester.” The song bursts with fervent patriotic rhetoric. Tyrants’ rods, slavery’s chains, and haughty foes are personified in Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, who amidst “marital noise” are driven from the field by “beardless boys” blessed by “New England’s God.” Around campfires, in ranks, and on battlefields those boys rallied to its triumphant chords. After the shouting had ceased, Billings’ music faded into obscurity, and an unmarked grave in the triangle on Boston Common memorializes the paradox of his life and contribution to the cause of Liberty.
Let tyrants shake their iron rod
And slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We’ll fear them not; we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton, too,
With Prescott and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our overthrow,
In one infernal league combin’d.
When God inspired us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their Ships were Shelter’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 Hallelujahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry chord.