The first American published composer of psalms and hymns and the inventor of fuguing songs, William Billings was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 7, 1746.
Born with vision in only one eye and uneven legs, Billings started music lessons as a young boy with a local choirmaster. He began studying Tansurs Musical Grammar and various psalm books and by the late 1760s, he had become Americas first professional composer.
A leather tanner by trade, Billings began teaching a singing class in Stoughton, Massachusetts, which would later become the Stoughton Musical Society (Americas oldest music society and first singing school). He organized the first church choir in America.
In 1770, Billings made history with the publication of New England Psalm-Singer, alternatively titled American Chorister. With a frontispiece engraved by his good friend Paul Revere, the songbook was the first collection of music completely written by an American and included over 120 compositions. His songs were published in a number of other books including The Singing Masters Assistant (1776) and Music In Miniature(1779). By 1790, there was hardly an American psalm book that didnt contain some of his songs.
With the advent of the American Revolution, Americas first popular songs emerged from the Billings psalms. A passionate advocate of the Revolution, Billings adapted many of his hymns as war songs with new lyrics. The biggest success of Billings career, Chester, became Americas first war song and a favorite for the Patriots. Chester is significant in the scope of American popular song because it marked the beginning of a new musical movement toward the military song.
William Billings died in Boston on September 26,…