He was actually the first major composer of the American Colonies. He was a child of the Revolution and it played out in his music. He wrote in an odd style. Church music was formal and slow and stoic. Think of all of those Puritans with their dour faces. Billings thought this was a tremendous waste of time and inspiration. So he wrote music that was supposed to be sung loud. It was supposed to be sung by lots of people. He hated solos. If there was to be a solo, it ought to be a muted thing that lead the audience to the choral section which is the point of the music anyway.
His music was just plain fun to sing. It danced and soared. And when you sang it, you wanted to dance and soar yourself. He wrote and published over 400 hymns and anthems. All of this without any musical training. He worked as a tanner and it payed some of the bills as he lead singing schools featuring his music. The schools were for the devout and for the people who sang in the Taverns. He was a man of the people.
John H. Lienhard, University of Houston wrote “Ben Franklin had said art would flow to the west -- to the new American Athens. What he got was Billings's grand idiosyncratic music -- no cultural continuity with anything. Billings's music emerged in the classical, rationalist age, with no trace of classical elegance. It's an artistic declaration of independence.
To know Billings, one should do more than just hear him; one should sing him -- four-square, almost-medieval harmonies, elaborate fugues, experiments with dissonance that foreshadow Charles Ives. He plays musical jokes, praises God, and dances into the erotic wonder of the Song of Solomon. Then he turns around and leaves us with one of the most exquisite short canons we've ever heard,
When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound ..
The essential genius of America, and of Billings, was recognizing that full independence of Europe would eventually be gained only after we'd formed our own cultural roots.”
Or hear this from Billing’s own mouth:
“Perhaps it may be expected that I should say something concerning rules of composition; to those I answer that Nature is the best dictator, for not all the hard, dry, studied rules that ever was prescribed, will not enable any person to form an air.. It must be Nature, Nature who must lay the foundation. Nature must inspire the thought.. For my own part, as I don't think myself confined to any rules of composition, laid down by any that went before me, neither should I think (were I to pretend to lay down rules) that any one who came after me were in any ways obligated to adhere to them, any further than they should think proper; so in fact I think it best for every composer to be his own carver.
Perhaps some may think that I mean and intend to throw Art entirely out of the question. I answer, by no means, for the more art is displayed, the more Nature is decorated. And in some sorts of composition there is dry study required, and art very requisite. For instance, in a fugue, where the parts come in after each other with the same notes, but even here, art is subservient to genius, for fancy goes first and strikes out the work roughly, and art comes after and polishes it over.”
Unpretentious would be an understatement. Some described Billings as a gargoyle. He practiced what a contemporary called "an uncommon negligence of person." He had one eye. He had a deformed arm. One leg was shorter than another. He had a raspy and raw voice. And he used to inhale snuff by the handful. It’s probably why he only lived to the age of 53. He died in poverty in 1800. His music disappeared in respectable churches, but it lived in the rural south and when the Sacred Harp Hymnal was first published in 1844, Billings featured prominently. But it was largely ignored in urban and dare we say educated areas until the last fifty years or so. Now, we wonder why we haven’t sung more of it. I know the UBC Chorale is going to sing a couple of Billings’ pieces in a couple of weeks.
But uncovering those odd things that bring light is part of our tradition—our calling. And now all of you are letters of recommendation for Billings.
The Apostle Paul and Barnabas spent their lives evangelizing the people from the outside. People who were not universally accepted by the mainstream.
In the weeks, months and years following that first Easter, the church faced some pretty major struggles. Virtually from its inception the church embraced the worldly us vs. them syndrome. They wrestled with the tendency to keep out rather than to include. When you are in chaos, you cling to what you know and don’t throw in another variable. But each time the church added a new member, they encountered variables. We are all variables. Some more than others. It’s easier in a time of chaos to exclude rather than include, to condemn rather than reconcile, to judge rather than to find a third way.
Today’s scripture is about who gets into the church and who doesn’t. The story told by Luke in Acts 15 is also recorded by Paul in the second chapter of Galatians. Paul’s version is harsher, since he’s on the receiving end of the exclusion. We remember that Paul used to be a leading figure in Jerusalem. He was a Pharisee. Pharisees, we know, were an exclusive bunch who felt it their God-given duty to save the religious community from those they thought would pollute it.
Jesus had his share of troubles with the Pharisees. They were constantly in his face trying to confound and undermine his ministry. They really got offended when he let women be part of his followers. And every time Jesus embraced a tax collector or a leper, the Pharisees would shout “Blasphemy!” Jesus, we remember said, “alas for you lawyers and Pharisees, you hypocrites who wouldn’t recognize the reign of God if it hit you over the head.” (or something like that)
Acts 15 opens with the sentence, “Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Luke identifies these people as Pharisees. At some point, Jesus’ old opponent, the Pharisees became part of the Jerusalem church. And they brought with them their judgmentalism and self-righteousness. They might have also brought with them their wealth, which gave them influence and further muddied the waters.
Paul calls these “men from Judea,” in Galatians 2:4 “false brethren brought in to spy.” Paul and Barnabus had a long and heated argument with these people. They finally decided to go to Jerusalem to hash it out with the apostles and the elders of the church.
What was at stake was the future of the church. Would it be exclusive, and have its membership restricted only to Jews, or would it be inclusive, letting non-Jews in to the fold? But this was not only a religious issue. It was also a race issue. Would the church welcome people of a different nationality?—people with a different skin color? How about a different language, a different culture?
So after lots of long meetings, Peter finally stood up and said, “sisters and brothers, you know that the gentiles would hear the gospel and become believers as God has commanded,. And God through the Holy Spirit cleansed their hearts by faith. God has made no distinction between them and us. So why are we putting a burden on their back that neither our ancestors nor we have had to carry?”
And just to make sure they understood that this was the truth and the teaching of the church in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem church sent a letter of recommendation to Antioch, Syria and Cicilia. He did this in the form of Judas Barsabbas and Silas. They carried withthem a letter from the Jerusalem Church saying, “we bless you and your ministry. We don’t put any restrictions on you except that you don’t eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.” (they said this so that they could share a meal with them in the future). What’s incredible is that they don’t say they have to be circumcised. It was a turning point for the church. It was a moment of moving toward inclusion of the outsiders.
Are you a good letter of recommendation for what you believe most strongly?
Sacred Harp Music, while it is usually overtly Christian, seeks to be an inclusive community with no hierarchy, no pretense, no deference to some master or mistress. It’s a joining of hearts and voices to make something remarkable—a sacred Harp. A sound that is pleasing to God because it is inclusive and creative.
And we are the very best letters of recommendation of this music. Only our letters say, you can’t know this music until you sing it.
If you need a good letter of recommendation for William Billings, it could have come from his friends and singing partners, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. When Billings wrote the New-England Psalm-Singer in 1770 it was the first book of American music. It began a tradition of musical grass-roots choral singing in America and Billings knew what he'd done. He delayed publication over a year -- until he could print it on paper made in the Colonies. No English imports for Billings. The book included his song Chester, which rivaled Yankee Doodle as an anthem of revolution. We’ll close with the singing of this song. Think of it as not only a declaration of independence from England. Think of it as a declaration of independence from whatever empire or system of control binds you. It might be an addiction. It might be Goldman Sachs. It may be the economy. Why do we sing? We sing to proclaim a truth. We sing to garner strength for the journey. We sing to strengthen each other. We sing to bear the faithful witness. We recommend not a person, not a style of music, not a composer, but a way of life.
But remember when we sing together we garner a power from beyond us and we proclaim a better way. The inclusive spirit of the Gospel is at the heart of really good music. Celebrate it and sing it loud.
Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join'd,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin'd.
When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc'd,
Their ships were Shatter'd in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.
The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet'rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen'rals yield to beardless Boys.
What grateful Off'ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev'ry Chord.