J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Closer Look at Psalm-Singing

After my posts last week on Samuel Adams's psalm-singing and his latter-day reputation for tavern-going, authors M. T. Anderson and Alfred F. Young both sent messages about the frontispiece for William Billings's seminal New England Psalm-Singer (1770). That's it to the left, courtesy of the Library of Congress; click on the image there for a larger view of the engraving, created by Paul Revere.

As Tobin Anderson and Al Young both pointed out, Revere didn't depict these psalm-singers as a church choir. Nor are they working-class "Mechanicks" of the sort Judge Peter Oliver complained that Adams lured into psalm-singing societies in order to talk politics. They're gentlemen in wigs, gathered in a genteel setting: expensive tablecloth, carved chairs, lots of windows. There are no drinks visible to indicate a tavern, but neither does the room look like a meeting-house. It is, apparently, a private club or society, where gentlemen have met to sing psalms. Perhaps they were in one member's house, perhaps in a public space like a room in an upscale tavern or coffee-house, or the Long Room above Edes & Gill's print shop. (Edes & Gill sold the New England Psalm-Singer.)

How accurate is this depiction? One factor is whether Revere copied the scene from a model, as he usually did with his more elaborate engravings. In Paul Revere's Engravings, Clarence S. Brigham suggests that he came up with this image on his own—in other words, no one's found a model he copied. The rendering of faces and perspective is as amateurish as Revere usually was without such help. He may have put extra hours into engraving this plate because it wasn't a time-sensitive response to current events; indeed, Billings wrote in his preface that he'd delayed publication more than a year in order to print on American-made paper. So Revere may well have drawn a scene he knew from Boston. Of course, gentlemen weren't the only Bostonians singing psalms—but showing them with copies of Billings's tunes would have made these new psalms look even more respectable and fashionable.

Anderson wrote of how the frontispiece "suggests the penetration of sacred music into locales other than the church where we imagine it," and, conversely, how "Billings's texts are often overtly political—when not simply naming names, they make delightfully bombastic analogies between the Biblical and the revolutionary." This trend became even stronger after the war began, but even in 1770 Billings was in the Patriot camp (and his tannery was on the same street where Christopher Seider's parents lived). As Peter Oliver's complaint about Adams showed, the Patriots intertwined their religious and political activities. Anderson added:

I would have loved to see what Adams made of Billings—this blustering figure, so amiable, so peculiar, one leg shorter than the other, one arm shorter than the other, one-eyed, thumbs yellow with snuff, stinking of the tannery; not just composer, drover, and tanner, but hog-reeve, garbage collector, and the first editor of The Boston Magazine. Imagine how moving the singing-schools must have been around the time of the Revolution—people gathered, singing these brave tunes of sedition...and Adams perhaps among them.
Look for more of M. T. Anderson's depiction of Revolutionary Boston in his novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, due next month from Candlewick.


Anonymous said...

Paul Revere almost certainly copied the idea for this engraving from the frontispiece of a similar Book of Psalmody printed by William Tans'ur in England and entitled 'A Compleat Melody: or, The Harmony of Sion' (1735 onwards), and from which many of the psalm tunes at that time were taken, especially before William Billings printed his own book of compositions. Tans'ur had a great effect on the psalm-singing community of the time; his books were reprinted extensively in America, and the style of his music was copied and subsequently improved upon.

What you do not show in the copy of the engraving on this page (although it is reproduced in full on the page dedicated to Yankee Tunesmiths) is the circle of music, a canon, written around its edge. This idea is also to be found in Tans'ur's engraving where he sets one of his own tunes around the picture. He also sets the singers around a table in a room with a window, so the similarities are considerable.

It has been suggested that the people sitting around the table are intended to represent psalm-singers of the time, including William Billings, Sam Adams and Paul Revere himself.

J. L. Bell said...

Paul Revere wasn’t a great print engraver, and he copied many of his images, especially the more elaborate ones, from British sources. Tans’ur was indeed well known in Boston, and an entire collection of his psalms was reprinted there in 1767. So I’m not at all surprised to hear of a similarity in that image.

If you click through the thumbnail image to the Library of Congress site, and then through the thumbnail there, you’ll reach Revere’s full image, musical oval and all.

As for the singers in Revere’s picture, portraiture was his weakest area. In fact, I believe one of his prints has been called the most inept portrait ever offered for sale in colonial America. So it’s lucky the singers are recognizable as humans, much less individual humans.