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Sketching a newborn United States in song

“The True Penitent,” attributed to William Billings in Jeremiah Ingalls’s “The Christian Harmony,” 1805.

By Matthew Guerrieri Globe Correspondent 

On Sunday, the Boston Camerata surveys the musical landscape of the newborn United States with “Liberty Tree: Early Music for the American Soul,” a program featuring two composers that, despite varying fame, anchor modern musical consideration of the era: William Billings (1746-1800) and Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838).

The largely self-taught Billings was a well-known Bostonian, but forever struggled to translate his celebrity into prosperity. He ran singing schools while working as a tanner and, later, the Boston city hogreeve, responsible for rounding up stray pigs. He published six books of music between 1770 and 1794: vigorously contrapuntal tunes and anthems, idiosyncratically reinventing English church-music traditions. He hung out with revolutionaries — the frontispiece of his first book, “The New England Psalm-Singer,” was engraved by Paul Revere — and his hymn “Chester,” calling out the “Infernal League” of British generals and celebrating the reign of “New England’s God,” became the war’s unofficial anthem. He died a pauper in 1800, soon after writing a now-lost elegy for George Washington.

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Ingalls, too, wrote a memorial anthem for Washington, sung at the Congregational Church in Newbury, Vt., where Ingalls was choir director and, later, a deacon. But if Billings’s music was a record of individual inspiration, Ingalls reflected an entire community. He was a farmer, a barrel-maker, a tavern-keeper, and, by most accounts, not terribly diligent at any of it. But music fired his enthusiasm. There are stories of Ingalls abandoning the day’s errands or deliveries for a few hours’ singing upon meeting a fellow music-lover. His was a life continually derailed by music — happily so, it seems. (In 1810, under sketchy circumstances, Ingalls was excommunicated from the Newbury Church; within weeks, he was 20 miles west, directing the choir in Hancock.)

His one and only book of music, “The Christian Harmony,” a poor seller upon its 1805 publication, became, in retrospect, a valuable historical resource. True to its author’s partiality to both church and tavern, the collection mixed original numbers, hymn-tune standards, and ballads and folk songs that Ingalls adapted into hymn-tune form. (His most famous hymn-tune, “Northfield” — to Isaac Watts’s text “How long, dear Jesus, oh! how long / Shall that bright hour delay” — began life as an impromptu burlesque on a delayed restaurant meal.)

Beginning in the 20th century, Billings and Ingalls found new fame, the former as an example of early American genius, the latter as a recorder of quotidian musical currents that gave rise to the country’s sundry and contradictory sounds. Between them, the two musicians — one an industrious, individual creator; the other a convivial, mercurial collector — outlined a nascent American cultural disposition.

The Boston Camerata presents “Liberty Tree: Early Music for the American Soul” Sunday at 4 p.m. at Memorial Church, Harvard Yard, Cambridge. Tickets $25-$60; students $10. bostoncamerata.org

Matthew Guerrieri


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.