Monday, December 22, 2014

A Most Uncommon Christmas Carol - Caroling with footnoteMaven

I invite you to listen to William Billings's Christmas carol, "Shiloh," also known as "The Shepherd's Carol," written in 1781.  (The lyrics are at the end of this post if you'd like
to read them or sing along.)

When I first heard William Billings's Christmas carols I thought them unusual, almost outlandish, especially when considered in the context of the Christmas carols I already knew.  But I've learned to love them and I've come to appreciate the music, the language, and the energy. 

William Billings was born in Boston in 1746 and died there in 1800.  He is known as America's first choral composer.  Unfortunately for him copyright protection was behind the times and by the time it had caught up, most of his songs had already been published in hymnbooks, copyright-free, preventing him from owning the copyright.  (See Reception.)  He died in poverty.  I suspect that at least some of my ancestors heard and/or sang William Billings's music.

Our family was introduced to the music of William Billings in 1987 by the Ohio Village Singers.  We attended Ohio Village's Christmas open house that year and, with a throng of others, followed the Singers around the village as they sang at each building.  Then we all gathered in the Town Hall for more caroling and a tree lighting.

We fell in love with the Village, the shopkeepers, and the environment.  It wasn't long before we became members of the Ohio Historical Society so that we could visit the Village on a regular basis.  The Christmas season was spectacular in a simpler way than we're used to in modern times.  The Village was a refuge from the hustling bustling crowds of commercial Christmases.  We mourned the loss of Ohio Village when the craftsmen were fired and the Village was closed except for special occasions.  Our family has many happy memories of time spent in this Civil War-era, reconstructed village.

And now, the lyrics.  (The italicized verses below were omitted in the above version.)

          The Shepherd's Carol / Shiloh
          Methinks I see a heavenly host
          Of angels on the wing.
          Methinks I hear their cheerful notes
          So merrily they sing.

          Let all your fears be banish'd hence,
          Glad tidings I proclaim,
          For there's a Saviour born today,
          And Jesus is his name.

          Lay down your crooks and quit your flocks,
          To Bethlehem repair;
          And let your wand'ring steps be squar'd
          By yonder shining star.

          Seek not in courts or palaces,
          Nor royal curtains draw;
          But search the stable, see your God
          Extended on the straw.

          Then learn from hence, ye rural Swains,
          The Meekness of your God,
          Who left the boundless Realms of Joy
          To Ransom you with blood.

          The Master of the Inn refus'd
          A more commodious Place;
          Ungenerous Soul of Savage Mould,
          And destitute of Grace.

          Exult ye oxen, low for joy,
          Ye tenants of the stall,
          Pay your obeisance on your knees
          Unanimously fall.

          The royal guest you entertain
          Is not of common birth,
          But second to the great I Am;
          The God of heav'n and earth.

          Then suddenly a heav'nly host
          Around the shepherds throng,
          Exulting in the threefold God
          And thus address their song.

          To God the Father, Christ the Son,
          And Holy Ghost ador'd;
          The First and Last, the Last and First,
          Eternal praise afford.

This post was written to participate in footnoteMaven's 2014 Blog Caroling.  Thank you, fM!


Copyright © 2014 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. What a beautiful hymn! I sure do miss Ohio Village!

    1. Yes, I miss the Village, too, Brenna. In a way, it felt a little like home there.

  2. The Ohio Village sounds like a wonderful tradition, and I'm sorry too it is no longer even though I've never been. Every Christmas season needs such a refuge. Merry Christmas, Nancy!

    1. Hi, Wendy. The Village was almost magical at Christmas but visiting was a year-around tradition for us. There were times when we went every week, to visit the shop keepers and the animals. Things change, huh?

      Merry Christmas to you, too, Wendy.

  3. That is super sad about the village, but thank you for sharing this carol. I bet you felt like you were transported back in time when you visited.

    1. It's true, Michelle, that we did feel like we moved back in time. No telephones, no electricity, no cars, nothing at all modern inside the Village. (Of course that was before cell phones.) It really was a treat to visit. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.


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