Another look at sources of sacred song

Music geeks, this post is for you.

Jay Atkinson mentioned to me that he is tracking down errors in the attribution of some of the readings in the 1993 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, and I told him that there are also misattributions in the music. He asked me to give him some examples, and with very little effort I came up with the following:


279, “By the Waters of Babylon,” with words taken from Psalm 137, is attributed to William Billings in Singing the Living Tradition. However, this tune does not appear in the definitive four volume Complete Works of William Billings; there is a tune titled “Lamentation over Boston” with the words “By the rivers of Watertown,” a Revolutionary War era parody of Psalm 137, but the tune is utterly different. The second edition (1998) of Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition makes a partial correction, stating “This tune is frequently attributed, erroneously, to William Billings.” On his 1971 album “American Pie,” pop singer Don McLean performs this tune almost precisely as given in Singing the Living Tradition, and attributes it to William Billings; wherever McLean got his misinformation, no doubt this once popular album has spread the misinformation far and wide.

Where, then, does the tune come from? Continue reading “Another look at sources of sacred song”