America, Africa, and Ireland

January 31, 2016 at 10:00 am

Colonial New England was largely literate for its time. Besides a Bible, many families might have owned a copy of the Psalms set to poetic verse by Isaac Watts. The region, being poor, lacked the musical instruments available to European audiences, and so, singing was the primary form of music-making. Everybody sang, and singing-masters made their living travelling from town to town, teaching people to read music, sing, and selling their scores.

William Billings is one of my favorite composers; you might even call him the first great American composer. His music and life perfectly embody the revolutionary American spirit. He was a tanner by trade, but found his passion in composing and singing. He had only one eye, one of his legs was shorter than the other, was unkempt, and probably stunk. His music is rough and angular, lacking any grace that might be found in late 18th century European music.

There is a tradition of giving hymn tunes names; very often, the name of a city – for example, there are hymn tunes named London, Cranham, Richmond. This is why one of Billings’ best loved tunes is called Africa, a place to which I’m sure he never traveled. Its bold melody (found in the tenor voice – not the top note) skyrockets into the high range, capturing the spirit of Watts’ emotional outpouring.

This style of music-writing and singing is today known as Sacred Harp. It is an uniquely American invention, a sort of degenerate grandson of English choral music. And it’s fun to sing, so much so that Sacred Harp singings now occur all over the world. This video comes from a singing in Ireland.