By the late 1760’s, he had become America’s first professional composer.
The first American published composer of psalms and hymns and the inventor of “fusing 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 Tans’ur's Musical Grammar and various psalm books and by the late 1760’s, he had become America’s 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 (America’s 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 Master’s Assistant (1776) and Music In Miniature(1779). By 1790, there was hardly an American psalm book that didn’t contain some of his songs.
With the advent of the American Revolution, America’s 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 America’s 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, 1800. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
William Billings Song List:
AS THE HART PANTETH
HEAR MY PRAY’R
I AM THE ROSE OF SHARON
IS ANY AFFLICTED
LORD IS RIS’N INDEED
O PRAISE THE LORD OF HEAVEN
SAMUEL THE PRIEST
WAKE EV’RY BREATH