Just as the dust from the American Revolution was beginning to settle, another one was taking root in New England: a music revolution. And it all began in Stoughton, Mass.
On a recent fall evening, I sat at a table surrounded by oil paintings, creaky old chairs, and glass cases of artifacts from the town of Stoughton’s nearly 300-year history. By day, this is the Stoughton Historical Society. By night – at least a few dozen times a year – it’s a rehearsal space for the Old Stoughton Musical Society.
Four women, all music lovers, were gathered with me. One of them, Mary Thomas, is a member of the choir and secretary of the board.
"This is the oldest continuously running musical society in the country," Thomas said. "It's in the Guinness Book of World Records. And it’s a pretty neat thing to belong to."
The society's 83-year old president, Betty Maraglia, agreed. "The purpose of the society is to preserve, promote, and perform music of our early New England composers and American music in general," she explained.
Today, the choir has a pretty wide repertoire. But their signature song remains “Chester,” a popular patriotic tune written in 1778 by William Billings — a Boston-born tanner by trade who is regarded today as America’s first choral music composer.
"He was a very serious teacher, a very good teacher," Music Director Rene Leblanc said. "Odd person. They described him as short of one leg and odorous."
These ladies, and generations of society members, have the odd and odorous Billings to thank for the society’s existence, Leblanc explained.
"William Billings, although he was never a member of the society, really was the person who gave birth to it," she said. "It was members of his singing school that came together and decided to create the society."
In late-8th century New England, music was just starting to find its way out from the churches, and it was still viewed by many with a healthy dose of Puritan suspicion.
"So you either sang in church or you were going to a tavern and you would be drinking and raising a pint and having a good time," said Leblanc. "And they did not want this society to be a tavern society."
Those higher-minded ideals are reflected in the society’s detailed and exhaustive constitution, ratified about a block from where we sat by 25 founding members on this week way back in 1786.
"[According to the constitution] we’re not supposed to meet after 8:30," Leblanc said. "And we do honor that still."
"Here’s the neat thing," Thomas added. "In the constitution, lifetime membership in the society is two bits. So that's 50 cents. So if you pay 50 cents you are a lifetime member."
Over the course of its 230-year history, the Old Stoughton Musical Society has had high points — like in 1893, when 100 singers and an 11-person orchestra were invited to perform at the famed World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. But they have also seen much leaner years.
"Some of the concerts have been small," said Gerry Meadows, who with 40-years under her belt is currently the longest-serving member of the choir. "We’ve fluctuated with numbers that have been in the chorus."
The society has had as many as 125 members and as few as ten. Today it is some 17 members strong. The society puts on two concerts a year and performs at the occasional town event. As the mission calls for, it’s mainly American music — everything from standards to early Broadway tunes like Rodgers and Hart's With A Song in My Heart.
But their specialty remains the work of Billing himself, along with 18th- and 19th-century songs like See Amid A Winter’s Snow.
"I don’t want to be the one who dropped the torch," she said. "I don’t want to be the last director of this society. I wanna make sure that this goes on — that when I’m Betty’s age, that I’m coming to the concerts."
Their concerts might not be elaborate affairs, and their profile might not be not as high as other choral groups. But Mary Thomas says that some two centuries on, they continue to be exactly what they were meant to be from the start: a true musical society.
"Folks that really like to sing, if they join us, they would enjoy it," Thomas said. "We have a concert twice a year. That’s the culmination of all the rehearsals, but I think if you took away concerts we’d still like to meet and sing."
The OId Stoughton Musical Society's holiday concert takes place on Saturday, Dec. 10, at 8 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Stoughton. More information is available here.