Oct 072016


Today is the birthday (1746) of William Billings who is regarded by many music historians as the first choral composer in the North American colonies. His music now survives in the shape-note tradition that is still found in the U.S. South, and in a few revivals elsewhere. But Billings did not write in shape notes. They did not appear in common use until the 19th century.

Billings was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and, at the age of 14, the death of his father stopped his formal schooling. In order to help support his family, young Billings trained as a tanner. He possibly received musical instruction from John Barry, one of the choir members at the New South Church, but for the most part he was self taught. Billings had an unusual appearance and a strong addiction to snuff. A contemporary wrote that Billings

was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address & with an uncommon negligence of person. Still, he spake & sung & thought as a man above the common abilities.


Virtually all of Billings’ music was written for four-part chorus, singing a cappella (no musical accompaniment). His many hymns and anthems were published mostly in book-length collections, starting with The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770). Billings’ music can be at times forceful and stirring, as in his patriotic song “Chester”; ecstatic, as in his hymn “Africa”; or elaborate and celebratory, as in his “Easter Anthem.” “Jargon,” from Singing Master’s Assistant, shows his wit. Written as an answer to a criticism of his use of harmony, “Jargon” contains a tongue-in-cheek text, and jarring dissonances that sound more like those of the 20th century than of the 18th.

Most of the texts that Billings used in his works come from the poetry of Isaac Watts (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/isaac-watts/ ). Other texts were drawn from Universalist poets and local poets, whereas Billings himself wrote the text to about a dozen of his compositions. Billings wrote long prefaces to his works in which he explained (often in an eccentric prose style) the rudiments of music and how his work should be performed. His writings reflect his extensive experience as a singing master. They also provide information on choral performance practice in Billings’ day; for instance, a passage from the preface to The Continental Harmony indicates that Billings liked to have both men and women sing the treble (top) and tenor lines, an octave apart (standard now in shape-note singing):

 … in general they are best sung together, viz. if a man sings it as a Medius, and a woman as a Treble, it is in effect as two parts; so likewise, if a man sing a Tenor with a masculine and woman with a feminine voice, the Tenor is as full as two parts, and a tune so sung (although it has but four parts) is in effect the same as six. Such a conjunction of masculine and feminine voices is beyond expression, sweet and ravishing, and is esteemed by all good judges to be vastly preferable to any instrument whatever, framed by human invention.


Billings was involved in teaching in singing schools throughout his life. In 1769, when Billings was 23, the following announcement appeared in the Boston Gazette: “John Barrey & William Billings Begs Leave to inform the Publick, that they propose to open a Singing School THIS NIGHT … where any Person inclining to learn to Sing may be attended upon at said School with Fidelity and Dispatch.” He was listed as “singing master” in the Boston city directory up until 1798. In the preface to the Singing Master’s Assistant (1778), Billings included advice for the practical running of a singing school, including topics such as logistics, expectations for manners and attentiveness in students, and the need for the supremacy of the teacher’s musical decisions.


Billings’ work was very popular in its heyday, but his career was hampered by the primitive state of copyright law in North America at the time. By the time the copyright laws had been strengthened, it was too late for Billings: the favorites among his tunes had already been widely reprinted in other people’s hymnals making them permanently copyright free. With changes in the public’s musical taste, Billings’ fortunes declined. His last tune-book, The Continental Harmony (1794), was published as a project of his friends, in an effort to help support a revered but no longer popular composer. His temporary employment as a Boston street sweeper was probably a project of a similar nature.

Billings died in poverty in Boston on September 26, 1800, leaving behind a widow and six children. His funeral was announced in the Columbian Centinel: “Died- Mr. William Billings, the celebrated music composer. His funeral will be tomorrow at 4 o’clock, PM from the house of Mrs. Amos Penniman, in Chamber-street, West-Boston.” His grave is unmarked.


For a considerable time after his death, Billings’ music was almost completely neglected in the North American musical mainstream. However, his compositions remained popular for a time in the rural areas of New England, which resisted the newer trends in sacred music. Moreover, a few of Billings’ songs were carried southward and westward through the U.S. as a result of their appearance in shape-note hymnals. They are still popular in the rural South, as part of the Sacred Harp singing tradition.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Cooking in 18th century New England mirrored that of England of the same period. Slaver over Boston baked beans all you want, they don’t float my boat even when lovingly home made. I suppose I’ll get round to a recipe one of these days when I’m clutching at straws. Meanwhile here’s cod cakes which have been a Boston mainstay since colonial times. Given that I am starting to inject moveable feasts into my posts, I’ll give you one of my “moveable” recipes. I doubt that colonial cooks used cookbooks very often. People don’t use them now very much with the full resources of the internet at their disposal. Why would they in colonial times when printed matter was scarce? Then, as now, I am sure a fair amount of scribbling on scraps of paper was normal. Cod cakes can be seasoned and flavored in no end of ways – onion, celery, dill, garlic, lemon, parsley . . . you name it. Add whatever you want to this basic recipe of mine.


At the heart of cod cakes are fish and mashed potatoes in the ratio of approximately 1 part fish to 2 parts potato. So begin with 1 lb of potatoes. Peel them, cube them, and simmer them in salted water for up to an hour, so that they are very tender. Drain them, add a knob of butter and mash them with a standard potato masher. I don’t use a machine of any sort because I don’t want the potatoes to be puréed, but to retain a little texture.

Poach ½ lb of boneless and skinless cod fillets in a little water until they are just cooked (15 to 20 minutes). Drain and flake. If you want you can chop the fish fine, but I like it to retain some body.

Mix the potatoes and fish together, adding a beaten egg yolk and freshly ground black pepper. Make sure the ingredients are thoroughly mixed.

Place a generous quantity of dry breadcrumbs in a shallow bowl. These days I use Japanese panko because they produce a crisp coating, but obviously standard breadcrumbs are more traditional. Shape the fish and potato mix into patties much like a hamburger patty only somewhat thicker. Roll the patties in the breadcrumbs so that they are covered completely on all sides. Let them rest on wire racks for an hour.

Heat vegetable oil for shallow frying in a skillet to 350°F, that is, so that the cod cakes will be partially immersed in the hot oil. Fry the cod cakes in batches, turning once so that all sides are evenly golden. Drain on wire racks and serve hot.

Sauces are a nice addition, but that’s your choice. Mayonnaise or tartar sauce are common. You can also serve lemon wedges for a quick squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top.



Nov 292015


Today is the birthday (1832) of Louisa May Alcott, U.S. author and poet, known particularly for the loosely autobiographical/biographical novel, Little Women.

Alcott was born in Germantown, which is now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on her father’s 33rd birthday. She was the daughter of transcendentalist and educator Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May, and the second of four daughters: Anna Bronson Alcott was the eldest; Elizabeth Sewall Alcott and Abigail May Alcott were the two youngest. The family moved to Boston in 1834, where Alcott’s father established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Bronson Alcott’s opinions on education and tough views on child-rearing shaped the young Louisa’s mind, mostly in reaction to them. His attitudes towards Louisa’s independent behavior, and his inability to provide for his family, created conflict between Bronson Alcott and his wife and daughters.

In 1840, after several setbacks with the school, the Alcott family moved to a cottage on 2 acres (8,100 m2) of land, situated along the Sudbury River in Concord, Massachusetts. They described the three years they spent at the rented Hosmer Cottage as “idyllic.” By 1843, the Alcott family had moved, along with six other members of the Consociate Family, to the Utopian Fruitlands community for a brief interval in 1843–1844. After the collapse of Fruitlands, they moved to rented rooms and finally, with Abigail May Alcott’s inheritance and financial help from Emerson, they bought a homestead in Concord in April, 1845.


Alcott’s early education included lessons from the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, but she received the bulk of her schooling from her father, who was strict and believed in “the sweetness of self-denial”. She also received some instruction from writers and educators such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom were family friends. She later described these early years in a newspaper sketch entitled “Transcendental Wild Oats”. The sketch was reprinted in the volume Silver Pitchers (1876), which relates the family’s experiment in “plain living and high thinking” at Fruitlands.


Poverty made it necessary for Alcott to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and writer. Her sisters also supported the family, working as seamstresses, while their mother took on social work among the Irish immigrants. Only the youngest, May, was able to attend public school. Due to all of these pressures, writing became a creative and emotional outlet for Alcott. Her first book was Flower Fables (1849), a selection of tales originally written for Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1847, she and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, when they housed a fugitive slave for one week. Alcott read and admired the “Declaration of Sentiments”, published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights, advocating for women’s suffrage and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election. The 1850s were hard times for the Alcotts. At one point in 1857, unable to find work and filled with such despair, Alcott contemplated suicide. During that year, she read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë and found many parallels to her own life. In 1858, her younger sister Elizabeth died, and her older sister Anna married. This felt, to Alcott, to be the breaking up of their sisterhood.

As an adult, Alcott was a staunch abolitionist and a feminist. In 1860 she began writing for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War broke out, she served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862–1863. She intended to serve three months as a nurse, but halfway through she contracted typhoid and became deathly ill, though she eventually recovered. Her letters home – revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863, republished with additions in 1869) – brought her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. She wrote about the mismanagement of hospitals and the indifference and callousness of some of the surgeons she encountered. Her main character, Tribulation Periwinkle, passed from innocence to maturity and is the main witness to events.


In the mid-1860s, Alcott wrote passionate, fiery novels and sensational stories under the nom de plume A. M. Barnard. Among these are A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. Her protagonists for these tales are willful and relentless in their pursuit of their own aims, which often include revenge on those who have humiliated or thwarted them. She also produced “wholesome” stories for children, and after their positive reception, preferred them to adult fiction. Adult-oriented exceptions include the anonymous novelette A Modern Mephistopheles (1875), which attracted suspicion that it was written by Julian Hawthorne; and the semi-autobiographical tale Work (1873).


Alcott became even more successful with the first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (1868), a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts, published by the Roberts Brothers. Part Two, or Part Second, also known as Good Wives (1869), followed the surviving March sisters into adulthood and marriage. Little Men (1871) detailed Jo’s life at the Plumfield School that she founded with her husband Professor Bhaer at the conclusion of Part Two of Little Women. Jo’s Boys (1886) completed the “March Family Saga”.

In Little Women, Alcott based her heroine “Jo” on herself. But whereas Jo marries at the end of the story, Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her “spinsterhood” in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” However, Alcott’s romance while in Europe with the young Polish man Ladislas “Laddie” Wisniewski was detailed in her journals but then deleted by Alcott herself before her death. Alcott identified Laddie as the model for Laurie in Little Women, and there is strong evidence this was the significant emotional relationship of her life. Likewise, every character in Little Women seems to be paralleled to some extent, from Beth’s death mirroring Lizzie’s to Jo’s rivalry with the youngest, Amy, as Alcott felt a sort of rivalry for (Abigail) May, at times. Though Alcott never married, she did take in May’s daughter, Louisa, after May’s death in 1879 from “childbed fever,” caring for little “Lulu” until her death.


Along with Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, Anne Moncure Crane, and others, Alcott was part of a group of female authors during the Gilded Age, who addressed women’s issues in a modern and candid manner. Their works were, as one newspaper columnist of the period commented, “among the decided ‘signs of the times'”

Alcott suffered from chronic health problems in her later years, including vertigo. She and her earliest biographers attributed her illness (and death) to mercury poisoning. When she contracted typhoid during her American Civil War service she was treated with a compound containing mercury. Recent analysis of Alcott’s illness, however, suggests that her chronic health problems may have been associated with an autoimmune disease, and not acute mercury exposure. Moreover, a late portrait of Alcott shows a rash on her cheeks, which is a characteristic of lupus.

Alcott died at age 55 of a stroke in Boston, on March 6, 1888, two days after her father’s death. Her last words were “Is it not meningitis?” She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, on a hillside now known as “Authors’ Ridge”.


I admire Alcott’s general outlook on life very much, but I’m afraid I don’t care for her writing. I’m fully in favor of her abolitionism and feminism, of course, but it’s the particulars I can’t always relate to. I don’t resonate with the “Yankee spirit” I guess. It’s not part of my personal cultural universe. I treat her March sisters trilogy more as a curiosity, or a window on an alien world, than anything else. When you’ve been raised in Argentina, Australia, and England there’s not much to hold on to. Maybe it’s also that I am not terribly comfortable in New England.

Several times I have come across seed-cake in Alcott’s writing at poignant moments in the narrative – something that sticks in my mind for some reason. I remember the cake from my childhood, but have not had it in over 50 years. There’s something very Victorian about it. I can’t say I like or dislike it. I’m not sure who made it in my household, my mother or my elder sister. It would be fitting if it were my elder sister. It’s more of a cake for tea time than for dessert, and growing up we rarely had tea time as such – except on special occasions such as Christmas Day. The signature ingredient is caraway seed, which I use only rarely in cooking – usually curries. It’s certainly a rather “adult” taste for a cake.


Here’s Mrs Beeton’s recipe. It has no rising agent, I note, which would make it dense and heavy. I’m given to wonder if this is a mistake. The recipe here http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/02/nigel-slater-classic-recipe-seed-cake which is similar but cut down in size, uses self-raising flour. I’d be inclined to follow that route. Beeton’s recipe is more like northern gingerbread or parkin, I think.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of butter, 6 eggs, 3/4 lb. of sifted sugar, pounded mace and grated nutmeg to taste, 1 lb. of flour, 3/4 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 wineglassful of brandy.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour; add the sugar, mace, nutmeg, and caraway seeds, and mix these ingredients well together. Whisk the eggs, stir to them the brandy, and beat the cake again for 10 minutes. Put it into a tin lined with buttered paper, and bake it from 1-1/2 to 2 hours. This cake would be equally nice made with currants, and omitting the caraway seeds.

Time.—1-1/2 to 2 hours. Average cost, 2s. 6d.