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.



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