Sunday, July 02, 2017

America's First National Anthem?

With Independence Day on Tuesday, many people are celebrating with fireworks and family this weekend. I've been doing quite a bit of research lately on America at the time of the Revolution.

(Said research was sparked in part because of my current Hamilton obsession, which is fed daily by the realization that in two short weeks I'll see it in Chicago. Be. Still. My. Heart. Since the heroine of my current work-in-progress is a teenage slave in Georgia in 1783, this research is all useful, as opposed to merely interesting...)

One of the things I came across is "Chester."

Though sounding like a fluffy orange tabby lying on someone's favorite cushion, "Chester" is, in fact, a song by prolific Colonial composer William Billings, a self-taught musician. It's the unofficial Anthem of 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."

The song is bright, grand, and memorable. Though written for four-part harmony, the tenors have the melody, rather than (as is more often the case) the sopranos.

Billings was an odd duck: he only had one eye, walked with a pronounced limp because one leg was shorter than the other, had a withered arm, and was addicted to snuff. By all accounts his voice was a hearty, booming bass. Uneducated and a shabby dresser, he worked in a tannery where, it is said, he wrote his first pieces of music on the sides of leather in the shop. Never wealthy, he still hung out with the likes of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.
Frontispiece to New England Psalm-Singer, engraved by Revere.

"Chester" was first published in 1770, when Billings was only 24, in his book The New England Psalm Singer (which, incidentally, was the first published book of American music -- and Billings is widely considered to be America's first choral composer). The song and tune went through a few revisions, the best known of which was published in Billings' book The Singing Master's Assistant in 1778.

What does "Chester" mean, since the word does not appear in the song's text?

It's probably a reference to the city where Billings composed it -- a common practice at the time. It's a name derived from Old English and Latin meaning "camp of soldiers." There is no real evidence, however, that the song's name refers to any particular person, location, or battlefield. Why did Billings choose that title for his song? History isn't entirely sure.

Billings married Lucy Swan, a singer, in 1774, and they had six children. Lucy preceded Billings in death, leaving him with six kids under the age of 18.

At one point, "Chester" was as universally known as "Yankee Doodle." A variety of lyrics, both patriotic and religious, existed for the song, so it was as popular in church as in the barracks and on the battlefield.

An example of Billings' beautiful, though confusing, sheet music.
Sadly, Billings was a victim of our young country's lax copyright laws. Though he composed well over 100 works and published six volumes, when he died in 1800, two weeks before his fifty-fourth birthday, he was penniless and practically forgotten. (His friends were responsible for printing the sixth and last volume of his work, in an effort to help with Billings' financial situation. However, his four-part choral style had fallen out of fashion.)

In 1970, Billings was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which is great -- really. But, like any artist, I suspect he'd have been happier with being able to make a living from his art while he was still alive, rather than being recognized for his talents long after he was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston Common Cemetery.

Now it's your turn:
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