Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The evening began (rather ominously, I thought) with an existential question at the entrance to the Smithsonian's Hall of Musical Instruments.
"What are you?" asked the nice lady barring my way - not "who"? which can be answered with a Social Security number these days, but one of your true imponderables.
What do you answer? I am, among other things, a sinner, an American, a lover of truth and justice, a member (inactive but convinced) of the D.C. Statehood Party, and a not-very-proficient baritone.
There it was: suddenly the truth emerged. The audiene (hardly an accurate term Monday night) was being segregated according to vocal range. If I had thought a little more quickly, I might have lied and spent a more pleasant evening among the sopranos.
We were there to hear, to sing, to celebrate the life, words and music of William Billings, author and composer of "The New-England Psalm-Singer," "The Singing Master's Assistant" and other books containing some 300 religious and patriotic songs in four-part harmony which are a large part of American music's firm foundation.
Billings, who flourished at the time of the American Revolution and celebrated it in rambunctious music, was our first native composer of real stature, and he set the pattern for generations to come not only by the rough-hewn vigor of his style but by dying in poverty.
Billings' works are being revived and studied today as a part of America's quest for its artistic roots. The occasion for Monday night's celebration at the Smithsonian was the publication of a critical edition of two of his works - the beginning of a complete edition and, more significantly, the first critical edition ever published of any American composer.
The evening included readings from the proser of Billings - which turned out to have as much vigor and quirky imagination as his music - discussions of his life and times, and most satisfying of all, an amateur, unrehearsed performance of 14 of his songs directed by master Neely Bruce.
Having tipped my hand at the door, I was placed among the bases and baritones, who sang with such lusty vigor that I was only occasionally, faintly aware that there were others singing. On the whole, the baritones did very well - particularly, I think, when I stopped singing to listen.