Sunday, July 23, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 030: William Billings: Wake Ev’ry Breath: Music of William Billings; live

By the William Appling Orchestra. Avoid the ridiculously pristine and airbrushed recordings by Paul Hillier (a Brit, for God's sake!).

Word of warning: if you’re an audiophile punk, or a prissy classical geek, or don’t like music that refuses to “let the ears lie back in an easy chair” (Chas. Ives)—like, say, this guy—then you should run far away from this record. Go listen to the Hilliard Ensemble or somebody whose tone, tuning, technique, and interpretation has been buffed to a high sheen and a low level of intensity. But if you love what makes American music, then check out this CD.

William Billings was the first great idiosyncratic composer in American music, one in an honorable lineage that also includes Anthony Philip Heinrich, Daniel Decatur Emmett, Eubie Blake, Jimmie Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Ives, Frank Zappa, and Thelonious Monk. A marvelously individualistic prose stylist as well as musician, Billings famously “thought it good to follow no musical strictures but my own”—which could be taken as the virtual mantra of all the above-mentioned. Born in ?, he was a tanner, a composer, a music-salesman, and one of the great American singing-masters—itinerant teachers who provided both the principle means of musical instruction and the principle source of new musical collections in Colonial New England. Billings was the inheritor of the New England Puritans’ approach to composition: essentially an “additive” method by which successive lines were added to an existing bass line or melody.

The result is a marvelously clash-ridden harmonic language: the members of the “First New England” school didn’t worry about harmony, but about texture, rhythm, text, and most of all singers’ engagement. They wrote “fuging” tunes which had little to do with the formal fugal methods of Buxtehude and Bach, but provided the successive/staggered individual entrances that singers find so enjoyable. Their collections included folk songs, hymn-texts set to borrowed folk tunes, original compositions, blithely-appropriated re-writes of choral works by Bach and Handel, and so on: but they always included an instructional “Preface”, introducing everything from the rudiments of note-, clef-, and rhythmic-reading to the details of good vocal production and choral blend. In Billings’s case, such Prefaces also provided an opportunity for him to vent his spleen toward the Boston reformists and English politicians he despised.

And that gets at another something honorable in Billings’s lineage: his blithe willingness to use his own music for scabrous political commentary. Billings was in on the thick of the Revolutionary activities of the Sons of Liberty (a bunch of street thugs, basically) and the Committee of Correspondence, headed by that notorious rabble-rouser Sam Adams, and in the less verbose and more courageous activities of Paul Revere—who rode himself into exhaustion to warn the Committee of British Regulars’ approach on the night of April 18 1775, and who also engraved the frontispiece of Billings’s first collection, The New England Psalm-Singer—and Captain John Parker, who stood up at the “rude bridge that arched the flood”, crossing the Concord River into Lexington, and said “Stand your ground, don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Billings’s music is astonishingly original and amazingly engaging—and an absolute blast to sing. Billings’s knew that, whatever he wrote, it had to appeal to the backwoods singing-schools attendees who he counted on to buy his tunebooks. That made him a populist—both commerce and his own experience and philosophy demanded it. These tunes also became the bedrock of American hymnody, both black and white, being used over and over again, often with “contrafacts” (new texts) to the old familiar tunes. Billings himself reused them: in his second collection, CHESTER appears with new words:

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 plow 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.
I grew up in Massachusetts and the events and locales of the First American Revolution were part of my childhood. I stood on the bridge at Concord and I walked the Boston streets that Johnny Tremaine did. Billings’s tunes were still in the hymnbooks in the old Anglican church attended, built in 1714. Every 4th of July during my childhood the Revolutionary War bands played Yankee Doodle (originally a song mocking the Colonials) and The World Turned Upside Down (which Cornwallis’s band played as he surrendered at Yorktown) as they marched to a cannonade at the harbor-fort that prevented capture of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812 (in contrast, an asinine and pointless war). The Spirit of ’76 painting (you know, the three wounded guys playing fife-and-drums and carrying the flag) hangs in my home town hall. Sailors and fishermen from my home town saved George Washington’s ass by ferrying him across the Delaware on Christmas Day night 1776, rowing through the swirling snow and ice-laden water to initiate the attack that won the Battle of Trenton for the Colonials—and a foul-mouthed, tobacco-juice-spitting bunch I’ll bet they were.

The spirit of Paul Revere, John Parker, Ethan Allen (who took Fort Ticonderoga with the command “Open in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”), Charles Ives (who wept, privately, when composers he admired couldn’t get their music published—and then gave them anonymous donations), of Frank Zappa (who registered voters on his ’88 tour and cut up the PMRC’s Senators’ imbecilic comments into the disc Porn Wars), of Duke Ellington (who kept a band on the road 50 years, subsidizing them out of his own pocket, so he could play his own music)—they are all pre-figured in Billings’s music. It arises from a bedrock conviction that no-one, NO-ONE, is going to tell us what to believe about music, about culture, or about our democracy.

This is the republic I’m proud to have been born into—not that of the “greedy little hustlers” (Hunter Thompson) like George Bush and Dick Nixon. William Billings kicks Dick Nixon's ass--and as for George Bush (either one): they've never even heard this music. But in the next American Revolution, we’re going to rediscover that America—and Billings’s music will provide our anthems.

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

For the real thing, try Billing's "Africa" from "The Shapenote Album" by the Tudor Choir, who are based in Seattle. GREAT CD.

Hillier's recordings of shape-note stuff are actually a heckuva lot less air-brushed than some I've heard by American groups. He was inspired by a group from Vermont whose recordings were pretty darned "authentic" (to use a word I don't particularly like, but there it is.) There is also a similar vocal tradition that comes from England (can't remember the region offhand), so it's not that crazy for Brits to explore it. I'm assuming I have the right to sing some English medieval stuff even though I'm American.

That being said, I admit that I can hardly listen to Billings without suffering paroxysms of homesickness for New England.