From Daniel T.V. Huntoon's 

History of The Town of Canton, Massachusetts (1893)



Rev. Theron Brown says "the ancient town of Stoughton, which included the present Canton, was the cradle of New England middle-age psalmody, - that strange, quaint, minor mode, with its ' down, up ' time and its complicated fugues, whose most characteristic specimens are now presented and performed as musical curiosities. ' Portland ' and ' Lenox ' and ' Windham,'' Lebanon ' and ' Majesty,' ' New Jerusalem ' and the ' Easter Anthem,' were all born upon the soil; and the familiar Canton names of Capen, Tilden, Tolman, French, Dickerman, and Belcher appeared ninety years ago on the list of the singing class of William Billings." Long before the singing-school of Billings, a young man named Elijah Dunbar learned while going through Harvard College, in addition to his Greek and Latin, the art of reading music. On his graduation in 1760, he returned to his native town and at once organized a singing-school and gave to his neighbors the benefit of his knowledge.


In 1762 I learn from the " History of Dorchester " that" there was a singing meeting at Stoughton," and two years later I have evidence that there was an organization in working order for the purpose of practising in vocal music. This was the year the small-pox visited Canton, and it was deemed expedient to send word to the Bridgewater singers who were wont to attend not to come over. Singing meetings were held at the houses of neighbors; sometimes it would appear that they had " prodigious jangling." On the 13th of December, 1764, when William Billings was married to Mary Leonard, there were more than forty persons at the wedding, and the singing must have been very fine. Mr. John Stickney seems to have known something about the art, for when Jesse Billings came from Hatfield, and wanted some one to teach them to sing, Stickney went to their assistance. In 1766 " our singers are at Mr. Adams's." John Kenney, a fine bass singer, went with Elijah Dunbar to Boston to buy new books the same year; and they on March 19 " draw books and sing the old 50th the first time." On Feb. ri, 1767, the Braintree singers came to Canton, but got into a religious discussion and had " a remarkable time;" subsequently they met at the old May tavern on March 9, all the differences were made up, and " there seems to be great love and harmony." On August 4, they have in the old gambrel-roofed house still standing at Ponkapoag " sweet singing at Elijah Crane's," and on the 24th " fine fidling." In 1770 new books were introduced; and on the 2 ist of December, they were used in the house of Samuel Capen for the first time. During the interval from the year 1764 to 1774, the principal persons belonging to this society, or the persons at whose houses they met, were: Elijah Dun-bar, Elijah Crane, Squire Dickerman, John Stickney, John Kenney, Samuel Capen, Enoch Leonard, John McKendry, Thomas Crane, Henry Stone, Theophilus Lyon, Robert Redman, George Blackman, Philip Liscom, Asahel Smith, Samuel Tilden, Wadsworth Talbot, Abner Crane, William Patrick, Benjamin Gill, Jeremiah Ingraham, John Withington.

In 1774 William Billings, then twenty-eight years of age, gave instruction in music, or, as they would have said, taught a singing-school in the tavern of Robert Capen. He interested the young people of Stoughton in his work, inspired them with his own enthusiasm, organized them into choirs, taught them to despise foreign music, especially that of England, and jumbled religion and patriotism into his stanzas with such a grace that he became the most successful organizer of music in America.

In Canton and vicinity the seed fell on good ground, and in due time she outranked all her sister towns.

It may be of interest to reproduce this list copied from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register.

" List of scholars at Wm. Billings' Sacred Music Singing School at Stoughton, Jan., 1774."

Singers of Tenor

George Monk, John Wadsworth, Jr., Lazarus Pope, Dr. Peter Adams, Jacob French, Robert Swan, Jr., Joseph Wadsworth, Andrew Capen, Ruth Tilden, Abigail Jones, Elizabeth Tolman, Hannah Wadsworth, Abigail Wadsworth, Susanna Capen, Jerusha Dickerman, Elizabeth Dickerman, Mehitabel Talbot, Esther Talbot, The Fenno girls, Lydia Gay.

Singers of Counter.

David Wadsworth, Theophilus Capen, Thomas Tolman, Isaac Morton, Eliphalet Johnson.

Singers of Treble

Lucy Swan, Jerusha Pope. Patience Drake. Waitstill Capen, Hannah Holmes, Bethiah Capen, Eunice Holmes, Hannah Capen, Chloe Bird, Hannah Briggs, Keziah Bird, Mary French, Mindwell Bird, Elizabeth Cummings, Rachel Capen, Irene Briggs, Sarah Tolman, Meltiah Swan.

Singers of Bass

Jonathan Belcher. Samuel Tolman. William Tilden. George Wadsworth. John Capen.

It seems that again we have the old story of love between teacher and pupil; for William Billings, the master, fell in love with Lucy Swan, the pupil, and they were married July 26, 1774.

On the 7th of November, 1786, about twenty-five persons, who were fond of music and of having a good social time, met together for the purpose of consultation in regard to organizing a musical society. A committee was appointed to draw up a constitution which was accepted on the 22d, and adopted, with some amendments, on the 8th of December. The original members were residents of what is now Canton and Stoughton. The organizations in the Stoughton and Canton precincts uniting, they made choice of Hon. Elijah Dunbar for their first president, and for twenty-two years he was re-elected. He was passionately fond of music, and had one of the finest collections of books on this subject then in the country.1 He had a voice like that of many waters, and rendered the old Continental music to perfection. The first singing-book used by the society was " The Worcester Collection." In 1828 the society published " The Stoughton Collection;" but "Ancient Harmony Revived " was subsequently adopted. From the beginning to the present day the " Old Stoughton Musical Society" has had among its members some of the finest singers in the State. Its meetings have always been attended with interest, the favorite times of meeting being artillery election days on the first Monday in June, and at Christmas-time. " It was," says John S. Dwight in the "Atlantic Monthly," 1882, " the earliest in New England, and the harbinger of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society."

The fiftieth anniversary of the organization of the society was held at Stoughton on Jan. 2, 1837, postponed for convenience from Nov. 7, 1836. The celebration consisted of an address by Ebenezer Alden, M.D., musical selections, and a banquet. Only five of the original members were present and took part in the celebration,—James and Jonathan Capen, of Stoughton, Andrew Capen, of Boston, Nathan Crane, of Canton, and Atherton Wales, of Lyme, N. H.

At the beginning of this century the hall in Carroll's tavern, Canton, resounded to the sounds of the old Continental music, and the following ladies and gentlemen were then members of the Old Stoughton Musical Society: —

Gen. Nathan Crane, with his sons, Enos Crane, and Nathan Crane, Jr., Isaac Billings, the brothers Samuel and Andrew Capen, Samuel Canterbury, Friend Crane, the brothers Phineas, Samuel, and Uriah Leonard, the brothers Lemuel, Jason, Nathaniel, and Alexander French, Thomas Dunbar, James Beaumont, John Blackman, Betsy Crane, Hannah Dunbar, Mary Leonard, Katie McKendry, Avis French, and Nancy Leonard.

In the Stoughton Musical Society's Centennial Collection, published in 1878, appears the following reminiscence:

" In the year 1790 or thereabouts,—so the tradition runneth,— the art of singing was so well developed in Stoughton that the singing in church attracted the attention of the ministers who indulged in the neighborly acts of exchanges. With the best intention to increase the efficiency of their own church service, these ministers reported that they heard better music at Stoughton than at any other place. Reports then took to themselves wings, as they do now, and they soon reached the good people of Dorchester, even to the singers of the old First Parish, from whose broad limits have sprung so many other churches to bless the land. These well-trained singers of the old town so near the ' Bay,' from whose shores emanated then, as now from ' the Hub,' excellence in art, grace in scholarship, and refinement in living, could ill brook the judgment that Dorchester did not wear the honors in the art of singing as in many other accomplishments. Confident in their ability, and ready to test it, they challenged the Stoughton singers to a trial. The challenge was accepted ; a meeting arranged. It was held in a large hall in Dorchester, and, says the narrator, who was one of the singers, ' the hall was filled with prominent singers far and near, including many notables from Boston.' The Dorchester contestants had a bass viol and female singers. The Stoughton party consisted of twenty selected male voices, without instruments, and led by Squire Elijah Dunbar, the President of the Stoughton Musical Society, who was not only one of the most accomplished singers of his day, but distinguished for his commanding presence and dignified bearing. The Dorchester party sang first an anthem recently published, executing it with grace and precision. The Stoughton party followed with Jacob French's new anthem, 'The Heavenly Vision,' rendered without book or notes. The applause was unbounded as they took their seats. Again the Dorchester choir sang; then to close the tournament, the Stoughton choir without book Handel's grand Hallelujah chorus, recently published in this country by Isaiah Thomas. The Dorchester singers acknowledged defeat, and confirmed judgment of the ministry. So endeth this incident of the olden time."

There were men belonging to this society who were no mean composers of music. " New Bethlehem " was composed by Edward French, who was born in Canton in 1761, and died in Sharon in 1845. A brother of his, Jacob French, born July 15, 1754, was even more distinguished. He published in early life the "New American Melody," in 1793 the " Psalmodist Companion," and " The Harmony of Harmonies " in 1802. "The Heavenly Vision," the most widely known of all his anthems, was published in the Worcester Collection, the copyright of which he sold to Isaiah Thomas. These two eminent composers were the sons of Jacob, who is first seen in Canton in 1748, and Mariam (Downes) French ; their parents were married Nov. 22, 1751, and the children were baptized, Jacob on July 21, 1754, and Edward, Nov. 1, 1761. The father was born March 8, 1728, and in 1756 was a corporal in the company of Captain Sturtevant, and is mentioned in an old manuscript as one who went ashore at the " East Passage." On April 3, 1763, a contribution was taken up for him in the old meeting-house, because he was wounded, — whether in battle or not, there is no information. He resided near the old Stearns house on Chapman Street.

Samuel Capen was the author of " Norfolk Harmony," and at the ordination of Mr. Ritchie " he headed and conducted the music, both vocal and instrumental."

This marvelous attention to music of course had its effect upon the singing in the meeting-house. In very early days it was a simple affair. Soon after the precinct was formed, on the 16th of June, 1721, it was voted that Peter Lyon set the psalm. It was not a difficult matter for the congregation to follow him; for it is asserted that for nearly a hundred years after the arrival of the Pilgrims, not more than five or six different tunes were used or known.

The Rev. Samuel Dunbar was a good singer, and as early as 1740 had the matter brought up in church meeting. Some of the brethren desired that new tunes be introduced, and on the next Lord's Day, in the evening, it was to be decided; but so intense was the excitement that when the time for taking the vote arrived, it was deemed in the interest of harmony to postpone the balloting for another week, and when that time arrived, it was voted that some " new tunes be added to ye old ones," and that Mr. Dunbar set them.

The first book used by the singers in Canton was without doubt the one commonly in vogue at the earliest formation of the church, — a versification of dogmas and creeds turned into rhyme. But in 1765 Elijah Dunbar desired to have Dr. Watts's version of the Psalms adopted and sung by the congregation, which was accordingly done on the 21st of August. In 1778 it was voted that the tunes should be named by the chorister before they were set, and that the chorister pitch the tune by a pitch-pipe. This vote was said by the wicked ones to have been passed, because there was one tune with which the chorister was familiar, but with which Mr. Dunbar was not, and the chorister always struck up that tune; pitching was done by the old-fashioned implement. A few years later one of our townsmen, the late Mr. James Bazin, invented a pitch-pipe that could be carried in the vest-pocket.

Some tunes were not relished. On the striking up of "Ailesbury" on Feb. 11, 1770, old William Wheeler got up and went out of meeting.

In 1783 it was voted to read a psalm to be sung; and three years later the position of the singers, which had been on the east side of the alley, was changed to a more conspicuous position in the middle of the gallery.

In 1798 so crystallized had become the dislike to the enormities of Watts that Elijah Dunbar was pleased when Dr. Belknap brought out his " Sacred Poetry." It was an index of the theological standing of any church at that time whether they retained Watts or adopted Belknap. If they retained Watts, they were Trinitarians; if they adopted Belknap, Unitarians. Belknap's book was adopted and continued in use until 1825. In 1794 musical instruments were introduced, - the bass viol and flute, - which to some gave great offence, for as soon as the tuning began, Mr. Adam Blackman would take his hat and walk out of meeting.

The hymn-book in use in 1826 bears not the name of the compiler; but the Preface is dated Cambridge, 1825. In 1830 Dr. Greenwood published his "Psalms and Hymns for Christian Worship," which was adopted and in use until 1869, when the " Hymn and Tune Book, with Liturgy," published by the American Unitarian Association, was adopted, and is still in use.

Deacon Thomas Dunbar was a famous singer, and often, led the concerts of the Stoughton Musical Society. He upheld the fame of his father and his grandfather, and on his sons fell the duty of maintaining the singing in the old parish. Thomas Dunbar was born July 25, 1775, and died Dec. 8, 1855. He married, May 21, 1804, Chloe, daughter of William and Chloe (Blackman) Bent. She w?s born March 9, 1781, and died May 4, 1852. He resided at the Hardware, in a house which stands almost on the site of the house in which General Gridley lived and died. He was a worthy citizen, a zealous Christian, an honest man.

Samuel Leonard, commonly known as " Major Sam," is described to me by one who knew him well as " a heavenly singer." He was the son of Enoch and Mary (Wentworth) Leonard; married Avis, daughter of Thomas and Salome (Babcock) French, Feb. 11, 1813, and died Oct. 19, 1854, aged seventy-nine years. His wife, Avis French, belonged to a musical family. Her mother was a Babcock, sister to old Master Lemuel, — a famous singer in old times; and her grandmother was Abigail Pitcher, a name also famous in musical annals. Her brothers, Lemuel, Jason, Thomas, Alexander, and Nathaniel, were all good singers, and were second cousins to the famous composers, Jacob and Edward.

Friend Crane and Nathan Kenney were also noted for their fine voices.


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