June 18, 2014

The original national anthem – Chester

Before the U.S. had the Star Spangled Banner as their national anthem, a tune called Chester was the unofficial anthem.

William Billings wrote the tune Chester as a patriotic song used during the American Revolution. Billings was born in Boston in 1746 and by the age of 14, his formal education ended with the death of his father. Billings pursued music as a way to help support his family. He had a strong addiction to tobacco, which he indulged by inhaling handfuls of snuff. One contemporary described him as “a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address & with an uncommon negligence of person. Still, he spake & sung & thought as a man above the common abilities.”

Billings wrote the first verse for Chester in 1770 and made improvements on it in 1778. The song quickly became the second most popular patriotic song during the American Revolution, behind the song Yankee Doodle. By the time of the War of 1812, Chester was played as the unofficial national anthem in military camps and at public functions.

It is believed that these lyrics were written by Billings himself:

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 plot 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.

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

On September 26, 1800, William Billings died at the age of 54 in poverty, leaving behind a widow and six children. 

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