Please help support the American Music Preservation site.
Make a donation of $25 or more to PineTree Productions through safe and secure PayPal. You will receive a CD from the American Music Recordings Collection as a gift for your donation.
Click on this button to
A few notes of introduction...
For over 250 years the Town of Stoughton, Massachusetts has been filled with singing!
This page has been prepared to make people aware of this long and distinguished musical past.
Among Stoughton's many distinctions are two musical societies, one of them now the oldest in the United States and whose roots go back to the 1760s. Since it has remained an amateur singing society it may now be the oldest one of its kind in the entire world. They had the honor of representing New England choral music at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
More recently, there have been many award-winning Stoughton High School musicians who have received gold and silver medals at competitions locally and elsewhere.
Plus, there is the popularity of Stoughton
singer-songwriter, Lori McKenna.
Unfortunately, over the years there has been much misinformation about Stoughton's two historic musical societies which have similar names:
The Stoughton Musical Society (open to members everywhere)
The Musical Society in Stoughton (only open to town residents)
It has been written that the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, organized in 1815, was America's oldest musical society. Not true!
Their first President was Elijah Dunbar, a graduate of Harvard College and a frequent singer in town. He lived in what is today the Town of Canton. His diaries from 1762-63 are the earliest known mentions of singing meetings in homes and taverns, and they are listed in this historical collection available on DVD: OLD STOUGHTON - Singing Meetings and Concerts, 1762-1962.
After it was incorporated in 1908 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it was designated as The Old Stoughton Musical Socierty. This musical society was officially recognized by The Guinness Book of Records in 1994, thanks to proof provided by musicologist, Roger Hall.
The other music group was calledThe Musical Society in Stoughton (MSIS)and was organized in 1802. This society only accepted singers from the Town of Stoughton and not from other towns as OSMS did. The Musical Society in Stoughton claimed to have been founded in 1762 but there are no documents to prove that claim. After years of declining membership, MSIS was disbanded in 1982.
Some music historians have continued to repeat the same incorrect information.
For example, they have written that 18th choral music "disappeared" from New England during the 19th century and 20th century. But it did not disappear in Stoughton where the singers continued their efforts to preserve the earlier choral music especially by New England composers.
The listings below were compiled
by musicologist, Roger Hall
Earliest Singing Meetings
The first known singing meetings were held in 1762 . There were 30 singing meetings listed at various locations in the diary of Elijah Dunbar (1740-1814), who eventually became the First President of the Stoughton Musical Society in 1786. A list of all the singing meetings in 1762 and 1763 from Dunbar's original diaries as well as many others are included in the book included on the multi-media DVD with music titled, "OLD STOUGHTON" - Singing Meetings and Concerts.
See the essay, "The Musical Elijah Dunbar," by Roger Lee Hall, compiled from the Dubar journals and published in -
This publication is available from the Stoughton Historical Society at this link:
This photo from the early 1900s shows the site of Robert Capen's house at the corner of Park and Seaver Streets in Stoughton. It was later moved and remodeled on Seaver Street where it still stands.
The Capen house is where the famous Boston composer, William Billings, taught his singing school in 1774. Billings was the best known New England composer in 18th century America. His Stoughton singing school had 49 pupils, consisting of young males and females, and one of them later became a composer himself, Jacob French (1754-1817).
The (Old) Stoughton Musical Society, 1786 -
This plaque is located at the entrance of the Stoughton Historical Society building in Stoughton Square and reads:
"On November 7, 1786, America's oldest musical society was organized near this spot. This plaque placed on the occasion of its 200th anniversary in 1986."
This society was originally known as the Stoughton Musical Society (SMS) and had its first meeting at Robert Capen's house at the corner of Park and Seaver Streets. Many of the first members were from what is now Canton, Massachusetts, including their first President and Song Leader, Elijah Dunbar, who served as President until 1808. He was a graduate of Harvard College and active in many duties, including naming his Town of Canton, when it was incorporated in 1797. SMS Vice-President was Capt. Samuel Talbot, who later served as as their second President from 1808 to 1818. The first Secretary was Lt. Samuel Capen, serving from 1786 to 1800. For the first few years there were two Treasurers:
Joseph Smith, 4th and Andrew Capen.
At first it was exclusively a men's singing society.Then in 1844, "it was voted that ladies be invited to sing with the Society," after the serving of alcohol had been abolished.
This musical society added the prefix "Old" when they were officially incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1908. They accepted singers from all the surrounding towns, including Avon, Braintree, Bridgewater, Brockton, Canton, Randolph and other places.
Two hundred years later to the date, on November 7, 1986, the OSMS bicentennial concert was held at Stoughton High School. The same major choral work was performed as at the Centennial Concert in 1886 -- Franz Joseph Haydn's The Creation, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Also performed in the concert was a tune titled "Stoughton" by William Billings, in a new edition with 18th century text.
In 1994, thanks to the efforts of musicologist and composer Roger Hall, this choral society was listed in The Guinness Book of Records.
Mr. Hall also submitted the information to the Chase's Calendar of Events, a national directory, which had this entry:
"OLD STOUGHTON MUSICAL SOCIETY: ANNIVERSARY. Nov. 7, 1786. Founded at Stoughton, MA, the Stoughton Musical Society is the oldest choral society in the United States."
Another distinction for the Stoughton Musical Society is the first Constitution written by a musical organization in 1787, just two weeks after the U.S. Constitution.
For a one-act play about the writing of the Stoughton Musical Society's Constitution, see "Peace" - Music From Stoughton.
First Singing Contest
Read about the contest between two Massachusetts choruses, included selected male voices from the Stoughton Musical Society at
A second choral society was organized in Stoughton on January 1, 1802.
The only difference between the two societies was that only Stoughtonresidents could join this singing group. Many of them also belonged to the older Stoughton Musical Society. For example, the first President of this choral society was Capt. Samuel Talbot, who also served at the same time as Vice President of the Stoughton Musical Society.
Samuel Talbot served as President of the Musical Society in Stoughton from 1802 to 1808. The first Vice President was Robert Swan, who served from 1806 to 1808. First Secretary was Abram Capen (1802-1806), and first Treasurer was John Dickerman Jr. (1802-1806).
For many years the Musical Society in Stoughton officers claimed to have been founded in 1762, but there are no documents to support that claim. Their claim was that the first singing meetings in 1762 were the beginning of this musical society. Actually, there are no records to prove there was a musical society organized in 1762.
One of their last officers, Frank Reynolds, had the original sign board painted over with the incorrect date of 1762 substituted for the date of 1802, bringing great dishonor to him for tampering with an artifact of history. But his dirty deed didn't go unpunished. After years of incorrectly claiming they were the "oldest choral society in America," The Musical Society in Stoughton (MSIS) continued to lose members until they finally dwindled down to only a few and were disbanded in 1982, with their remaining assets given to the Old Stoughton Musical Society, which was the oldest one in town.
There are still traces of the wrong date for the Musical Society in Stoughton, such as in the Pilgrim Monument at Provincetown, Massachusetts, which may be "set in stone" but is still incorrect when it states the Musical Society in Stoughton began in 1762, instead of 1802. The 1786 is correct for the Old Stoughton Musical Society.Actually both musical societies had singers who were attending informal singing meetings in the 1760s in Stoughton.
The Centennial Celebration in 1886
The Centennial observance of The Stoughton Musical Society took place with Gov. George D. Robinson and Lt. Gov. Oliver Ames in attendance.
The Centennial Celebration of the Stoughton Musical Society was held on June 9, 1886 with an evening concert at Stoughton Town Hall:
The complete program for the Centennial on June 9:
Morning Exercises (10:00 a.m.)
1. Overture: The Magic Flute - Mozart
2. Hymn to the tune of "Old Hundred"
3. Prayer by Rev. E.H. Capen, D.D., President Tufts College.
4. Words of welcome by the SMS President, Winslow Battles.
5. Historical address by Hon. Samuel B. Noyes.
6. Centennial Hymn - written by Dexter Smith, Esq.
Evening Exercises (7:30 p.m.)
Oratorio: The Creation - F.J. Haydn
Miss Elene Buffington Kehew, soprano;
Mr. George J. Parker, tenor;
Mr. Clarence E. Hay, bass.
Orchestra of the Society, Mr. E.A. Jones, leader,
Mr. H.L. West, accompanist.
Conductor: Mr. Hiram Wilde,
Assistant Conductor: Mr. George N. Spear.
Tickets to Concert, 50 and 75 cents.
Admission to the morning exercises alone -- 25 cents
Also in 1886, E.A. Jones composed a special commemorative piece for the Musical Society in Stoughton and he titled it, "OLD STOUGHTON." This tune was composed in the 18th century New England style. A copy of the sheet music is included in the pamphlet, E.A. Jones: His Life and Music.
In August of 1893, the Stoughton Musical Society was the only invited chorus to perform early New Englandmusic at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The man mostly responsible for arranging these concerts was Stoughton composer and violinist, Edwin Arthur Jones. Two concerts were given on August 14 and 15, with several thousand people in the audience, more than attended the classical symphony concerts.
For a complete list of the music performed by the Stoughton Musical Society, and some of the music on a CD, go to:
Old Stoughton Musical Society's First Fall Music Festival was held in Bridgewater, Massachusetts on October 14-15, 1978.
Featuring choral music by William Billings, Bartholomew Brown, Samuel Capen, Lewis Edson, Jeremiah Ingalls, Edwin Arthur Jones, Nahum Mitchell, and organ music by James Hewitt, Oliver Shaw and others. The Old Stoughton Musical Society Chorus, William J. Childs, director. Richard Hill, organist.
A CD is available from the radio program narrated by Festival Chairman, Roger Hall. Read more at:
This concert honoring the centennial of Stoughton Town Hall was performed by the Old Stoughton Musical Society, conducted by Roger Hall on November 22, 1981.
A special banner with the Stoughton Town Seal was designed for the occasion by artist Mildred Wilson.
All the music was by American composers, including William Billings, Supply Belcher, Samuel Barber and Randall Thompson.
Some of the pieces in the concert were by local composers, including several choruses by Edwin Arthur Jones and an anti-war song, "Peace,"set to a poem written in 1814 by a Stoughton teenage girl, Esther Talbot.
This is the first verse of her poem:
Come, gentle Peace, with smiling ray,
Beam on our land a cloudless day;
Beneath thy influence serene,
The olive wears immortal green.
The poem was set to music by Roger Hall and received its First Performance in the 1981 concert.
To see the 100th anniversary Town Hall program,
OSMS Bicentennial Anniversary in 1986
November 7, 1986 was declared as "Old Stoughton Musical Society Day" in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by order of Governor Michael S. Dukakis. Shown here behind Gov. Dukakis are (left to right):
State Senator William R. Keating;
O.S.M.S. President David M. Benjamin;
State Representative Marjorie A. Clapprood;
O.S.M.S. Treasurer Joseph M. Klements;
O.S.M.S. Vice President and Bicentennial Chairman, Roger L. Hall
The Old Stoughton Musical Society Bicentennial Season included special exhibits at Harvard University, the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington and in Stoughton, all produced by Bicentennial Chairman, Roger Hall.
There were four concerts given during 1986:
The first one was given on April 20 in North Easton, Massachusetts, under the direction of Earl Eyrich. It featured the World Premiere performance of the hymn tune, STOUGHTON, by William Billings [1770 copy shown above]. This tune originally had music only without any words. The Billings tune was edited by Roger Hall, who added a hymn text by Dr. Isaac Watts which was popular in 18th century New England.
Also, there were two concerts given in 1986 at the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Massachusetts:
The first concert in Lexington was presented in October and titled: "Two Centuries of Piano Music in New England," featuring pianist David Hagan performing works by Charles Ives, Edwin Arthur Jones, and Roger Hall.
The following month a second concert was presented: "Two Centuries of Choral Music in New England," with the Old Stoughton Musical Society Chorus, directed by Earl Eyrich, performing music by William Billings, Jacob French, Oliver Shaw, Edwin A. Jones, George W. Chadwick, and Roger Hall, who composed an 18th century style fuging tune for the OSMS bicentennial titled, DEDICATION, based on words printed in the 1794 tune book of William Billings.
The fourth concert that year was the official Bicentennial Concert held at Stoughton High School exactly two hundred years later on November 7, 1986. The Billings hymn STOUGHTON was again performed and the featured work was Franz Joseph Haydn's oratorio, The Creation, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, conducted by Earl Eyrich. This was the same work that had been performed in the 1886 concert of the Old Stoughton Musical Society. The Bicentennial Commemorative program booklet contains congratulatory letters from President Ronald Reagan, an entry in The Congressional Record by Hon. Joseph Moakley, and concert notes by Earl Eyrich and Roger Hall.
Also on November 7, Roger Hall was a guestalong with William Billings biographer, David McKay, on the popular classical radio program, "Morning Pro Musica," on WGBH-FM hosted by Robert J. Lurtsema. There were several Billings tunes played on the program. A portion of this radio interview is available on this CD, The Best of William Billings.
In honor of this 200th anniversary, Roger Hall wrote a special Bicentennial Hymn based on the familiar psalm tune, "Old Hundred." This hymn text was included in the Bicentennial Concert Commemorative Program Booklet.
The 60 member chorus of The Old Stoughton Musical Society on stage at
Stoughton High School for the Bicentennial Concert
on November 7, 1986
The Stoughton Musical Society
Bicentennial in 1987
The bicentennial of the oldest constitution of any musical society in the United States took place in October of 1987.
The Stoughton Musical Society was written in October of 1787, just a few weeks after the U.S. Constitution was written. Here is a portion of the opening statement or Preamble to this 1787 Constitution :
And as the powers of harmonious music are most admirably calculated to humanize the ferocious passions, to increase the various emotions of the mind, the different degrees of sensibility and all the feelings of the heart, that not only the sense of hearing receives the highest gratification from sounds the most congenial to the organs of man, but we are made partakers at one and the same time of instruction and delight in viewing the noblest work of the Almighty, put in motion to answer the noblest ends... We, therefore, esteem it our duty to study to promote that harmony which is pleasing to our Maker and so delightful to ourselves. Stimulated with these salutary and laudable motives, we, whose names are underwritten, form ourselves in a society by the name of the Stoughton Musical Society, for the implied purpose of practicing vocal music....
The bicentennial program including an original play about the writing of the Stoughton Musical Society's Constitution is titled "Old Stoughton and The Grand Constitution." A video of this 1987 program and play is included on this DVD release:
Two of the oldest amateur singing traditions of religious or harmony music in the U.S. are the two musical societies in Stoughton, and the Sacred Harp singing in the South, especially in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
Of these, Stoughton is the oldest, performing choral music consisting of plain tunes, fuging tunes, set pieces and anthems. Also, this music has been supplemented with performances of larger choral works, such as cantatas and oratorios -- both types composed by an unjustly forgotten 19th century Stoughton composer, Edwin Arthur Jones.
There were two music collections published by the Stoughton Musical Society, the first in 1829 and the second one in 1878, which had tunes by Stoughton-born composers, such as Supply Belcher, Jacob French, and his brother, Edward French.
In 1980, The Stoughton Musical Society's Centennial Collection of Sacred Music (Ditson & Co., 1878), was reprinted with an Introduction and New Index by Roger Hall (New York: Da Capo Press, 304 pages). There are about 160 tunes in the collection, most of them by New England composers and some edited music by European composers (Haydn, Mozart, Naumann, Stephenson, Tans'ur). There are more New England tunes in this Stoughton collection than in other tune books of the 19th century, including The Sacred Harp.
Just to give an example, here are the number of tunes by William Billings in these collections:
The Sacred Harp (1844/ revision, 1991) = 14 tunes
The Stoughton Centennial Collection (1878/ reprint, 1980) =
There are approximately 48 early New England tunes in The Sacred Harp and 33 of these tunes are also found in The Stoughton Centennial Collection -- which is not a shape-note tunebook.
Thus, contrary to common belief, 18th century tunes did not disappear during the 19th century and early 20th centuries in the North, at least in Stoughton and surrounding towns.
Unfortunately, this fact is forgotten or not known by scholars and those who sing the New England music from The Sacred Harp, and other contemporary tune books, like The Northern Harmony (1998) and The Norumbega Harmony (2003).
They all fail to mention the important singing tradition in Stoughton that has been continuous since the 1760s.
The only event ever mentioned about Stoughton is the famous singing school taught there by William Billings in 1774. It is incorrect to say that Billings actually organized the Stoughton Musical Society, though he was greatly admired and five of the pupils in his singing school later joined the musical society when it was organized in 1786. Much more has happened in Stoughton since that time.
Also, these singing traditions in the North and South are not the same.
The Sacred Harp (or Shape-note) Tradition features a different singing style, with more emphasis placed on lung power and less on subtle singing. It is a much better known tradition than the one from Stoughton, and much appreciated, as it should be.
The Stoughton Tradition has been a more cultivated one. Like the Sacred Harp Tradition, the singers are not usually professional musicians. In the past, most of the chorus was made up of singers from many nearby towns in the Stoughton area. Their concerts have often included many of the same people who meet to enjoy the singing experience. It has remained the longest such tradition but unfortunately seems to have lost its way in the present day, with far fewer singers and a change of repertoire away from the singing of early New England tunes.
For two centuries, 18th century choral music was continued by the Stoughton Musical Society, and deserves to be remembered for that achievement.
Books and Articles
Billings, Edward Adams
Roger Billings I of Sharon, Massachusetts: A Family Tree. Barre, Vermont: L. Brown & Sons, 2001.
Includes brief information about composer William Billings who is incorrectly identified as a "musicologist." It is stated that William was not from the Roger Billings family line in Sharon.
Also included is the tune STOUGHTON, edited by Roger Hall, incorrectly listed as from Canton.
Flynn, John E.
Beyond the Blew-Hills: A Short History of the Town of Stoughton, Massachusetts. Stoughton: Stoughton Historical Society, 1976. Originally published in 1956.
"This reprint is a most welcome offering for anyone interested in examining our native musical heritage, particularly those concerned with the choral tradition... This volume should furnish hours of pleasant singing -- useful in the church, concert hall and the home."
--from a review by David P. McKay, The Hymn, 1982
"William Billings' songs to be remembered, Celebration set Oct. 6 at Boston Common,"
Stoughton Journal, September 26, 1996.
Huntoon, Daniel T.V.
History of Canton, Norfolk County, Massachusetts, Cambridge, MA: John Wilson and Son, 1893. Includes a chapter on music in Canton and Stoughton.
Jones, Mary (Swan) and Frank W. Reynolds
History of the Musical Society in Stoughton, no date.
Sub-heading "Formed in 1762" is incorrect. This society was formed on January 1, 1802.
Standish, Lemuel, editor
The Old Stoughton Musical Society: An Historical and Informative Record of the Oldest Choral Society in America. Stoughton, Massachusetts, 1929.
PART ONE: William Billings - His Life and Music
1. Family Tree
3. Wife and Children
5. Revolutionary Patriot
6. Singing Master and Composer
PART TWO: William Billings and Old Stoughton
7. The Singing School
8. The Stoughton Musical Society
9. First Tunebook
10. Second Tunebook
11. Chicago World's Exposition Concerts
12. Billings Tunes in Stoughton Concerts (1876-1986)
THE PLEASURES OF VARIETY (Text: William Billings/
Music: Roger Hall)
COME LET US SING (Text: William Billings/ Music: Roger Hall)
MAJESTY (music by William Billings, 1778)
STOUGHTON (music by William Billings, 1770, edited by Roger Hall)
Music Activities in Stoughton (1980-1999)
This monograph is in very limited supply and single copies may be ordered if still available by writing to:
Learn about one of the oldest singing traditions
in the United States.
Music in Stoughton: A Brief Survey
This pamphlet, written by Roger L. Hall, covers the years from the first recorded singing meetings in 1762 to the Bicentennial of the Old Stoughton Musical Society's Constitution in 1987. It also includes other major music events such as: Oldest choral society in America organized (1786); Second musical society organized (1802); First oratorio by a local composer (1887); Only musical group representing early New England music at World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893); George Washington Bicentennial Concert (1932), Old Stoughton Musical Society Bicentennial (1986).
At the back of the pamphlet are lists of Most Performed American Tunes (1879-1979) and Most Performed American Composers (1976-1986).
Also included is the song titled, "Peace," specially composed by Roger Hall in 1981 for the Centennial of Stoughton Town Hall. This song is based on an anti-war poem written by a Stoughton teenage girl in 1814 about the War of 1812.
The Stoughton Songster
A collection compiled and edited by Roger L. Hall which includes the lyrics for 12 songs performed in Stoughton concerts between 1980 and 1990.
Included are songs by Stoughton composers:
Edwin A. Jones, Frank W. Reynolds, F.William Kempf, and Roger Hall.
Also there are original lyrics to "Yankee Doodle" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
All the songs are available on the accompanying CD, along with a radio special about the 200th anniversary of the Old Stoughton Musical Society in 1986.
The 12 song and hymn lyrics included in
The Stoughton Songster:
I. Pilgrim Poet:
1. "O Boston!" (poem: William Bradford/ tune: OLD HUNDRED) -- edited and arranged by Roger Hall for the 350th anniversary of the City of Boston in 1980.
II. George Washington's Time:
2. "Stoughton" (music by William Billings, 1770/ edited by Roger Hall) -- for the Bicentennial of the Old Stoughton Musical Society in 1986.
Thanks to the efforts of musicologist and composer Roger Hall, the Old Stoughton Musical Society (OSMS) was listed as America's oldest choral society in The Guinness Book of Records and in Chase's Calendar of Events.
For many years Roger has been involved with music preservation. He served as the first Chairman of the Stoughton Arts Council from 1980 to 1984, and also was a member of the Massachusetts Arts Advisory Committee during the 1980s.
Also, Roger was the Chairman of the Old Stoughton Musical Society Bicentennial Committee in 1986.
In the 1980s he discovered the manuscript music of E.A. Jones and especially his major work, the 1881 cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra titled, Song of Our Saviour, which received its World Premiere performance in Stoughton in 1992 and was written about in the Boston Globe.
Roger was the OSMS conductor for several seasons and composed two commemorative works for them: