A Difficult Living

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He may have been one of America’s first outstanding composers but William Billings had to struggle just to make a living—with or without music.

Billings was born in Boston in 1746. When he was 14 the death of his father forced him to become apprenticed to a tanner. It’s likely that he attended singing schools and participated in amateur singing societies. By studying the writings of English psalm-writers, Billings learned enough to become a music teacher. He began to support himself through his music. He married and bought a house.

It’s unlikely that Billings’ success came from his looks. A contemporary described him as “a singular man of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye and an uncommon negligence of person.” Another observed that Billings had a withered arm and a habit of taking large quantities of snuff.

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To his credit, Billings had a powerful voice and proved an effective singing master. He taught in the most fashionable churches in Boston.

When the American Revolution broke out, Billings wanted to do what he could for the patriot cause. He was unable to serve in combat so he apparently signed on as a wagon driver and is said to have come up with words and music for new songs while driving a supply wagon over the hills of New York.

Billings prospered for a while after the war, but by the late 1780’s he had fallen on hard times and resorted to taking a series of odd jobs—leather sealer, hog-tender, scavenger.

In 1790 a public concert was arranged for his benefit with the assurance that “the distress is real.” Billings had to mortgage his house and attempted to sell the rights to his music to a publisher, but the resulting deal was more charity than business.

Although Billings died poor, he left a rich store of music to the young American republic.

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