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Billings, William (7th October 1746-26th September 1800)

He was a composer and teacher born in Boston, Massachusetts who has often been dubbed “the father of American choral music”.

His father died when he was fourteen years old and so he ceased schooling from that time on.  He had never taken studies in music on a formal basis although did have lessons with a choirmaster from his local area, but when he started out on a career he took the trade of a leather tanner.  He suffered several disabilities such as only having one eye, a deformed arm and a limp but this did not stop him becoming an acclaimed composer with a unique style.

In fact he has been credited as being the first American professional composer and formed the first American church choir.  Known for writing anthems, fuging songs and hymns, often using patriotic or folk music influences he published his first collection of around 120 songs, The New England Psalm-Singer aka American Chorister in 1770, which was engraved on the front by Paul Revere.

Over the next 24 years or so a further five collections were issued with titles such as Music in Miniature and The Suffolk Harmony.  His works, which total over 340, include the titles “Africa”, “Amherst”, “Chester” (which became an anthem for the American Revolution), “David’s Lamentation”, “Easter Anthem”, “Jargon”, “Judea”, “Majesty”, “Shiloh” and “When Jesus Wept” and they achieved popularity during his lifetime.  He married and he and his wife had six children.

Due to the lack of the copyright laws that there are now, others republished his works and he didn’t receive any monies from them.  He took on work as a street cleaner in Boston, but died in poverty in 1800 when he was 53 years old and buried in an unmarked grave.  His work was never forgotten though and several of the students that he had taught at Stoughton, Massachusetts, established the Stoughton Musical Society, which still exists today.

He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970; a hundred and seventy years after his death.

Musica Sacra Recordings
Baloo Lammy (Traditional Scottish)
G. 429 732-2 (CD:Christmas Carols & Motets)
Conductor – Richard Westenburg
Arranger  – Norman Luboff
Version composer – William Billings