DESCRIPTION: "Let tyrants shake their iron rods... We fear them not, we trust in God, New England's God forever reigns." The generals who would conquer America are listed. The song glories in the victory of "beardless boys" over veterans. God is thanked
AUTHOR: William Billings
EARLIEST DATE: 1778 (Singing Master's Assistant, according to Dichter/Shapiro)
KEYWORDS: patriotic religious rebellion freedom
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Botkin-NEFolklr, pp. 536-537, "Chester" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lawrence, p. 81, "Chester" (1 text, 1 tune, reprinted from the 1778 publication)
NOTES: The British officers listed in the second stanza are as follows:
Howe: Presumably William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe (1729-1814), who commanded the British forces at Bunker Hill (Middlekauff, p. 287) and later became the commander in chief of British forces in America (succeeding Gage) from 1776 to 1778 (he resigned after Saratoga, and properly, as his inaction led to Burgoyne's defeat. Morison, p. 239, quips that "Sir Billy was one of the greatest bus-missers in British military history"). Might also refer to his older brother Richard (4th Viscount and Earl, 1726-1799), who served primarily in the navy.
Burgoyne: John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne (1722-1792), commanded a British army sent down from Canada against the American revolutionaries. Burgoyne (re)captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, but in 1778 was defeated and his army taken at Saratoga. (The fault for this was largely Howe's, however, as the plan of campaign called for simultaneous advances against the rebels, and Howe quickly gave up his push, leaving the colonials free to deal with Burgoyne. For further background, see the notes to "The Fate of John Burgoyne.")
Clinton: Sir Henry Clinton (c. 1738-1795), became commander in chief in America in 1778 (Lancaster, p. 191). He served as commander in chief until 1781 (long after "Chester" was written). Despite losing the war, many historians regad him as the best officer the British had in America, leading the outflanking force which pushed Washington from Long Island (Lancaster, p. 146) as well as one of the few raids Howe sent out to distract colonial attention from Burgoyne.
Prescott: The British forces did not have a senior officer named Prescott (!). I'm guessing the reference is to Richard Prescott 1725-1788), described by Weintraub, p. 341 thus: "Colonel, 7th Foot with rank in America of brigadier general from November 1775. Captured, exchanged, and recaptured again (sic.) in July 1777 to exchange for Charles Lee. His reputation for arrogance was satirized in the British Press."
The other possibility is that this is by confusion with the American Col. Samuel Prescott, whose first major service was in defending Bunker Hill (Middlekauff, p. 283), but this seems an unlikely error.
Cornwallis: Charles Cornwallis, 1738-1805. At the time this song was written, the senior officer after Clinton in America, and the most aggressive of Clinton's subordinates. He lost the climactic battle of the war at Yorktown (Weintraub, p. 33, or see the notes, e.g., to "Lord Cornwallis's Surrender"), but this of course was later. And he wasn't actually a bad officer, as his later service in India and Ireland would show (for the latter, see, e.g., "The Troubles").
William Billings, the author of this song, seems to have been rather a character. Born in Boston in 1746, Fisher, p. 12, calls him "the eccentric, one-eyed, snuff-taking tanner's assistant." MasonEtAl, p. 49, declare that "It is unfortunate that this pioneer American composer should have become the butt of so much ridicule; yet one must admit that he invited ridicule. There was something ludicrous even in his personal appearance. 'He was somewhat deformed,' says Ritter, 'blind of one eye, one leg shorter than the other, one arm somewhat withered.... [He also had a] stentorian voice, made, no doubt, rough as a saw by the effects of the quantity of snuff that was continually rasping his throat.'"
He is sometimes called the first American composer. This isn't quite true; James Lyon, in his publication Urania of 1761 or 1762, supplied half a dozen original melodies (Fisher, p. 12), and also set one of Isaac Watts's poems to music (MasonEtAl, p. 49). But I can't find any works of Lyon's that are still sung.
Similarly, Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) explicitly claimed to be "the first native of the United States who has produced a musical composition" (Scholes, p. 489), and in 1759 produced "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free," listed by MasonEtAl, p. 46, as being "the earliest secular composition extant." Similarly Dichter/Shapiro, p. xix, call it "the first American ballad by a native composer," adding that the words were by Thomas Parnell -- but that it was "unpublished until the 20th century" (p. xx). Hopkinson did sign the Declaration of Independence (MasonEtAl, p. 46), but his only real claim to musical fame is being the father of Joseph Hopkinson, writer of "Hail, Columbia!"
Mates, p. 13, mentions "'the first American composer's concert," featuring the music and the performance of Giovanni Gualdo, in Philadelphia in 1769." But Gualdo, although he was a violinist and minor composer who settled in America, was an Italian who made his living primarily as a merchant and whose works seem to have been forgotten.
Billings, who wrote this and "David's Lamentation," is clearly better-known. He published The New England Psalm Singer in 1770 (Fisher, p. 13), and followed it with The SInging Master's Assistant (1778), Music in Miniature (1779), The Psalm-Singer's Amusement (1781), and The Continental Harmony (1794) (Fisher, pp. 13-14). To this list, Scholes, p. 510, adds The Suffolk Harmony of 1786. He also led a singing class which in 1786 organized itself as the Stoughton Musical Society, which Wikipedia says still exists today under the title "The Old Stoughton Musical Society," making it the oldest musical organization in the United States.
Although his early writings were mostly religious, MasonEtAl, p. 52, say that "What were written originally as psalm-tunes he had no difficulty in turning into ringing patriotic songs [once the Revolution broke out]. Many of them were sung by the New England soldiers throughout the war, and the tune known as 'Chester' was a favorite with Continental fifers."
He is also credited with introducing the pitch pipe into America "where it was badly needed," as well as allowing the 'cello a place in church performances (MasonEtAl, p. 52). But he is more important, according to Scholes, p. 507, because "(a) discarding the traditional psalm tunes, he actually composed, and that (b) following the English examples of Watts and Wesley, he wrote hymns and not mere psalm paraphrases. The work of Billings, then, marks the beginning of modernity in church song in American."
MasonEtAl, p. 50, declare that "Billings was an original genius with an unaffected, fervent and sincere love of his art. His very naivete is refreshing in an age which artistic artificialit had rendered almost sterile." This is followed by the statement that "Of musical knowledge he possessed very little," but this is softened on pp. 51-52 by the admission that "All of his works show a most primitive conception of the art of composition and a very hazy knowledge of the rules of hamony and ounterpoint. But they contain melodic and rhythmic force and originality. Billings could not write a good fugue, but he could write a good tune."
Billings died in 1800. It is ironic to note that the composer of this so-patriotic song is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave in the same enclosure as the British soldiers killed at Bunker Hill (Fisher, pp. xiv-xv).
The tune for this song is sometimes cited as "Retrospect," according to Dichter/Shapiro, p. 10. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.5
- Dichter/Shapiro: Harry Dichter and Elliott Shapiro, Early American Sheet Music: Its Lure and Its Lore, 1768-1889, R. R. Bowker, 1941
- Fisher: William Arms Fisher, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Music Publishing in the United States: 1783-1933, Oliver Ditson Company, 1933
- Lancaster: Bruce Lancaster (with a chapter by J. H. Plumb), The American Revolution (originally published as The American Heritage Book of the Revolution, 1971), Houghton Mifflin, 1987
- MasonEtAl: Daniel Gregory Mason, Editor-in-Chief, The Art of Music: A Comprehensive Library of Information for Music Lovers and Musicians, 14 volumes, The National Society of Music, Volume 4, Music in America, edited by Arthur Farwell and W. Dermot Darby, 1915 (available on Google Books)
- Mates: Julian Mates, The American Musical Stage Before 1800, Rutgers University Press, 1962
- Middlekauff: Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789, being part of the Oxford History of the United States, Oxford, 1982 (I use the 1985 paperback edition)
- Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford, 1965
- Scholes: Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music, ninth edition, corrected, Oxford, 1960
- Weintraub: Stanley Weintraub, Iron Tears: Amerca's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783, Free Press, 2005
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