A Virtual Tour: Popular songs in the American Revolution

Cultivating the Sensations of Freedom

Earlier this spring, Jennifer Guerin, one of our Education Associates, debuted a new special tour at the Old State House. A good deal of research goes into the development of a new tour, and in this post Jennifer shares her work with our readers, giving a virtual tour to those who can't visit us in person.

An interesting and specific criticism leveled at Samuel Adams by a number of Loyalists during the revolution had to do with his singing ability. He is referred to by John Mein as “the Psalm-Singer” in a way that is clearly critical and Peter Oliver notes that he “had a good Voice, & was a Master in vocal Musick. This Genius he improved, by instituting singing Societys of Mechanicks, where he presided; & embraced such Opportunities to [inculcate] Sedition.” When we imagine gatherings of Patriots, choir rehearsal probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind, but as it turns out, the Loyalists were probably onto something here.

William Billings advertisement in the Boston Gazette and Country Journal, April 29, 1771 (Newspaper Collection)

Songs from this period were often very political, and that included Church music like those psalms Samuel Adams was apparently so fond of. That particular development was largely thanks to a Bostonian named William Billings. Billings was a tanner by trade who also taught at a singing school and began writing his own music in the 1760s. In 1770, at the age of 24, he published his first book of about 120 compositions, entitled The New England Psalm Singer. This was monumental for American music; while Billings was not the first American composer, only about a dozen individual works by American composers had been published up until this point, and this publication increased that number of works exponentially.

Billings’ compositions not only strayed from traditional psalms to incorporate a wider variety of religious texts, but sometimes incorporated political themes as well. Billings was very much a patriot and was friendly with notable figures like Paul Revere, who eventually produced the engraving for the cover of The Psalm Singer, and the patriot printers Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who published the book. Billings actually delayed the publication of The Psalm Singer by a year and a half in order to ensure that it would not have to be printed on paper taxed by the hated Townsend Acts.

The most political piece in The New England Psalm Singer and the one that would go on to be the most well recognized was “Chester.” In “Chester,” Billings referenced the political situation in a coded way, mentioning tyrants and slavery, the language that was often used to talk about taxation:

      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.

It would eventually become much more explicit in a new version Billings published in 1778, during the war.  This version directly referenced the Siege of Boston in 1775 and referred to British Generals as an “infernal league” that was defeated by Americans inspired by God to take up this fight.

If this was the kind of thing Samuel Adams was teaching to his singing society, then I think we can say the music was indeed “inculcating sedition.” But I personally prefer the phrase that John Adams uses to refer to the singing of a revolutionary song at a Sons of Liberty gathering he attended: “cultivating the sensations of freedom.”