the American Revolutionary War soldiers marched to war, and as
the patriots sang in pubs, meeting halls, and churches, when
they sang what was then the unofficial anthem of the American
colonies, they were singing a piece of music composed by an American
composer, friend of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere...... William
Billings. The piece of music was named "Chester".
So, that being the
case, then how did we end up with a piece of music composed
in England for a British drinking club as our National Anthem,
while we overlooked our own American composers? Good question.
Here is how it happened.....................
In 1814, during a war
with the British a lawyer and part-time poet by the name of Francis
Scott Key saw an American flag still flying after a vicious bombardment. This
inspired him to write various versions of the famous poem that later
became our National Anthem. It
is possible that Key only intended this as a poem as there was
nothing in his original notes to suggest a tune. However, there
was a very popular tune of the time, for which had been written
many different sets of words.
the first handbills of the poem were printed, they bore the name
of this tune to which the poem should be sung - To Anacreon
In Heaven. Somewhat
ironically, this is a song that was written for a British drinking
The Anacreontic Society was a popular gentlemen's drinking club, based in a pub in
the Strand, London. The words of the song had been written by
the society's president, Ralph Tomlinson, but the tune is more
of a mystery.
At one time, the English
composer Dr Thomas Arnold was thought to be its composer
- Arnold had written numerous songs for the society. However, it
is now accepted that the tune was probably written collectively
by a group of members, led by John Stafford Smith, probably
In 1916, President Woodrow
Wilson ordered that it should become the National Anthem played
by the military and naval services, but it wasn't until March 3rd,
1931 that it was officially designated as the National Anthem by
act of Congress:
Be it enacted
by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States
of America in Congress assembled, That the composition known as
The Star-spangled Banner is designated as the National Anthem
of the United States of America.
So, we ended up with
a Brit drinking tune as our National Anthem. Of course, many people
think the darn tune is rather silly anyway and is difficult to sing
as well as being somewhat more of a vocal singing exercise than
a real song. But that's another debate for another time.
point here is that we had a real national anthem, actually sung
by patriots and soldiers during the American Revolution, composed
by a patriot himself who was a friend of some of the famous founding
fathers! And we didn't use the melody (or at least another Billings'
melody) as our national anthem, and to make matters worse, we didn't
even make the name and life of William Billings, our first real
national composer a topic of music education in our schools! Most
Americans do not even know who William Billings was, or about his
Hopefully these web
pages will help remedy that.....
concerning William Billings
and the children of America
We have been contacted by many teachers and students telling us that after learning about William Billings in their music courses, they have contacted elected officials, in some cases with signed student petitions to ask for some type of official recognition of William Billings, his music and other colonial composers. One class sent a petition directly to the President asking for some type of proclamation honoring William Billings. Two other classes sent a request to their local Congressional representative asking for them to submit some type of bill in Congress honoring William Billings and even to create a "second national anthem" using a tune of Billings with perhaps updated more modern wording.
Apparently, there is hope yet that Mr. Billings will get the full recognition in America he so surely deserves!
And amazing as it is........
William Billings appears in HBO movie!
In the recent HBO miniseries about John Adams (pictured at left), in episode 1, there is a scene where the Boston patriots are meeting and at the end of the meeting, they sing a verse of the anthem Chester by William Billings. This may well be the first widespread recognition of the music of William Billings and the fact that Chester was the original National Anthem.
And even better, if you look at the credits of the John Adams series, there is an actor listed as playing the role of William Billings!
If you want, you can download and listen to instrumental MP3s of the anthem Chester, and an excerpt from Billings' Lamentation Over Boston, a piece he composed in reaction to the attack on and burning of Boston by the British. Both of these arrangements are from an upcoming CD of instrumental arrangements of the music of Colonial American composers.