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Billings, William (07 October 1746–26 September 1800), composer, singing teacher, and poet, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of William Billings, a shopkeeper, and Elizabeth Clark. Little is known of his early life and education, but he is thought to have attended common school and gained his musical education through attendance at singing schools (class lessons in choral singing). After the death of his father in 1760, Billings was apprenticed to a tanner, a trade he apparently followed off and on. Music, however, was his love and psalm-singing his passion. He began holding singing schools as early as 1769 and earned a high reputation throughout eastern New England as a teacher of choral singing. Billings was much in demand as a vocal teacher, particularly in the 1770s and 1780s, and he continued to teach as occasion permitted until his death....

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Hays, Will S. (19 July 1837–23 July 1907), songwriter, poet, and editor, was born William Shakespeare Hays in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Hugh Hays, a successful manufacturer of farming equipment, and Martha Richardson, an amateur musician and writer. Although he early showed signs of musical aptitude, his formal training extended no further than a few violin lessons. He attended small colleges in Hanover, Indiana; Clarksville, Tennessee; and Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1856–1857. During this time he published his first song, “Little Ones at Home,” for which he wrote only the text. Hays returned to Louisville and worked in a music store. There he began to compose melodies for his poems, among the first of which was “Evangeline” (1857), musically in a style that acknowledged an important debt to the vogue for Italian opera. This turned out to be his first hit, selling perhaps as many as 300,000 copies. It was during his time at D. P. Faulds’s music store that Hays allegedly composed the original version of “Dixie,” a claim made by Faulds himself more than thirty years later and corroborated then by Hays. (This story has never been supported by evidence other than hearsay, and ...

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Hopkinson, Francis (02 October 1737–09 May 1791), author, composer, and judge, was born in Philadelphia, the son of Thomas Hopkinson, a lawyer and Pennsylvania councillor, and Mary Johnson. Hopkinson’s father emigrated from England in 1731. Hopkinson matriculated in the first class of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) in 1751; he graduated in 1757 and, with other members of his class, received an M.A. degree three years later....

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Scott-Heron, Gilbert (1 April 1949–27 May 2011), poet, songwriter, singer, and pianist, was born in Chicago, the son of Gilbert Saint Elmo Heron, a Jamaican-born soccer player, and Robert Jamison Scott, a librarian. (His mother Bobbie Scott was named Robert, after her father, despite the gender implications.) His parents’ relationship was contentious and soon disintegrated. His father returned to his own family in Detroit in ...

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Smith, Samuel Francis (21 October 1808–16 November 1895), editor, Baptist clergyman, and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Smith and Sarah Bryant. Young Smith was educated at both the Eliot School and the Boston Latin School, where he received the distinguished Franklin medal in 1825. At Harvard College, Smith became part of the famous class of 1829, which also included ...

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Zunser, Eliakum (28 October 1836–22 September 1913), poet and composer of Yiddish songs, was born in Vilna (later Vilnius), Russia, the son of Feive Zunser, a carpenter, and Etta Kayle. His family name probably came from Zunse, a nearby village. His father died when Eliakum was eleven, and the family moved into the home of his mother’s sister. Zunser’s formal education was limited by his boyhood apprenticeship to an embroiderer, where he learned to sew gold thread on civil and military uniforms, but he read Hebrew and studied the Talmud in his spare time....