The Music Of The Puritans


The new Zeitgeist, which was to spark the first native American music, began by stirring up grotesque confusion in New England. The old clumsy lining out, plus a sudden, noisy, childish attempt at florid style, produced, according to a contemporary comment, “something so hideous and disorderly as is beyond expression bad.” Help was at hand, but not to be administered without a struggle.

Enlightened churchmen drew up their forces of persuasion, among them two members of the great Cotton and Mather families, the Reverend John Tufts, and the Reverend Thomas Walter, who both published books of musical instruction. Walter also used his pulpit, offering his congregation the incentive that “the church of angels, who always rejoice in the good improvements of the church on earth, conceive no small delight and satisfaction in the essays of the children of men to imitate their hallelujahs. … They look upon us with honor and respect. …”

The forces of darkness were unmoved. “Elder and angry people,” to whom learning the skill of music was synonymous with devil worship, blatted out their ignorance, laziness, and superstition in a last-ditch battle. Their accusations were listed in a contemporary pamphlet: “It is a New Way … it gives disturbance, roils and exasperates men’s spirits … the names given to the notes are bawdy, yea blasphemous … their good fathers that were strangers to it are got to Heaven without it. And therefore what need for all this adoo and pudder for nothing? … a contrivance to get money … they spend too much time about learning … tarry out a nights disorderly.”

In individual congregations the fight was carried on hand to hand. Sometimes the air in a meetinghouse was rent while one faction tried to sing the psalm straight through in the more modern fashion, and the other, led by stentorian lining-out, strove to shout them down in the old way. We hear from the New England Courant of 1723 how a certain minister suspended seven or eight of the church for persisting in the new method. The same divine later felt himself obliged to conduct his services at home rather than suffer the singers who had taken over in his church. Finally his little crew of followers declared for the Church of England and sent for a missionary.

The new spirit was at last victorious. Able professionals were attracted from abroad by increasing prosperity; public concerts were staged—the first on record in the colonies took place in Boston in 1731; singing schools and musical societies flourished. To supply them, music publishing started in a small but active way. The happiness and pride of accomplishment that went into these books, the gayness of the tunes chosen, communicate themselves as soon as one opens the pages, and the heart warms to this hopeful adolescence of American musical life.


Into this burgeoning musical world William Billings, America’s first important composer, was born, in Boston in 1746. He was blind in one eye, had a withered arm, and legs of different lengths. When his widowed mother died she left to her three sons one great and six small chairs, one old broken desk, one small looking glass—a total value of £5 3 s. 6d . William was apprenticed to a tanner. Although he may have been able to scratch up a music teacher or two, he was largely self-taught. He had a will to be heard, a robust, engaging nature, and genius.

In 1770 he published The New England Psalm Singer. It contained 125 original tunes in parts; nothing vaguely comparable had ever been done here before. Its stars are “When Jesus Wept,” a canon in mazurka time, the then newly favored Polish rhythm which Billings used very frequently and with surprising, poignant effect; and the hymn “Chester,” which became the most popular marching song of the Revolution. Billings was very conscious of himself as a patriot and as a New Englander: in “Chester” he hailed “New England’s God” and he rearranged scripture to mourn for Boston during the British siege:


By the rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept

When we remember’d thee, O Boston


If I forget thee

Yea if I do not remember thee

Then let my numbers cease to flow