The Original
American National Anthem

As 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.

When 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 club!

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 1771.

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.

The 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 musical accomplishments.

Hopefully these web pages will help remedy that.....

Interesting news
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.



Back to the William Billings page


By William Billings

Let tyrants shake their iron rods,
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 Prescott and Cornwallis joined,
Together plot our overthrow,
In one infernal league combined.

When God inspired us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forced,
Their ships were shattered 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 hallelujahs let us sing,
And praise his name on ev'ry chord!



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