Saturday, October 22, 2011

Travel - Not Always A Destination!

It's strange if you think about it. Some people travel at random with no destination in mind. Other people travel with a destination very much in mind. Why? Simply that one's study, interest and research often produces a desire, a goal and, yes, even an obsession to visit a specific destination. Thusly, we often "travel" to a place or time "in our mind" before we travel "in our person."

This week I have been "mind traveling" to Boston, a place where I have never yet physically been. By chance I was introduced to the great American choral composer, William Billings.

I live in the heart of the Catawba which runs along the west-midwest border of North and South Carolina, the "greater Charlotte area." It was once known as the Waxhaws. Andrew Jackson was born here and wounded by the British during the War for Independence. During the 1770's and 1780's up to 70% of the population were of the Presbyterian religion, mostly from Scotland and Ireland via Pennsylvania where they outgrew their welcome. Their opposition to British tyranny was so intense that here locally the war became known as the "Presbyterian Rebellion." It is their worship style, namely singing, which inadvertently swerved me into William Billings, a man I had never heard of before this week.

Those Scotch - Irish Presbyterians sang a-capella without instrumental intervention. They sang only the Psalms and with only 12 tunes. The singing style later morphed into what we now call "Sacred Harp," today more recognizable as "American Choral." William Billings is known as the "father of American choral music." If you ever sang in your high school or college chorus you have likely sang one or more of Billings compositions.

Last Sunday we studied out of II Samuel 18 concerning the tragic death of King Davids son, Absalom. David passionately laments his son's demise in 18.33;
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!
This outpouring of unrequited love is known simply as "David's Lamentation." In 1778 Billings composed a song known by this title. You will notice on the link video that "Sacred Harp" is sung in a "square" with the leader in the middle, the four parts on the four sides of the square. The practice was to sing the tune first and then the hymn itself. Time is kept by the raising and lowering of the forearm.

It was while viewing "David's Lamentation" that I discovered a new "travel destination!" Billings wrote what was to become the un-offical national American anthem from the War for Independence until 1931 when Congress formally chose Francis Scott Key's "Star Spangled Banner." In early American composition, songs often were known by the town or hamlet where they were written, thus the name "Chester." Here are the lyrics to the five verses (via Wikepedia):

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 Prescott and Cornwallis join'd,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin'd.

When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines wer 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.

What grateful Off'ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Hallelujahs let us Sing,
And prais his name on ev'ry Chord.

Follow along with this modern day choral rendition:

There you have it, my "travel destination" not yet realized. One day, Lord willing, I will write a dispatch on this site from Boston on the life and times of William Billings - American hero!