Milford produced one of the most popular and influential musical groups of the 19th century, the Hutchinson Family Singers. Members of this talented family began performing publicly in 1840 to audiences hungry for homegrown musical expressions. The various Hutchinson Family troupes would be a presence on the public tour circuit well into the late 19th century, performing a total of more than 12,000 concerts. The Hutchinsons were influential in the development of distinctly American styles of popular music, and they left their mark on history through their fiery abolitionist tunes that became rallying cries for the anti-slavery movement before and during the Civil War.
The story of the Hutchinson Family Singers begins in 1800 with the marriage of Jesse Hutchinson (1778-1851) and Mary “Polly” Leavitt (1785-1868). Jesse was a native of Middleton, Mass., and Polly was from Mont Vernon, New Hampshire. The couple settled in Milford, New Hampshire where they operated a farm, and where they lived for the rest of their lives. The Hutchinson household was a busy one, as between 1802 and 1829 Mary gave birth to 16 children, 13 of whom (11 sons and two daughters) would live into adulthood.
Jesse and Polly enjoyed singing. They performed sacred music in church and sang ballads in local musicales, and they brought their children up in a joyful musical atmosphere. The Hutchinson siblings learned to sing at home and also took lessons from music masters in town. Their training would have included sight-reading of musical scores, and singing in three- and four-part harmony.
In Milford, the Hutchinson children developed a reputation for their singing abilities and stage presence. They performed at prayer meetings at the local Baptist church and gave concerts in their home, and soon people began traveling from around the countryside to hear them. Not only did the children sing well, but some played the violin and violincello as accompaniment. They were encouraged to begin performing in public. In October 1840 John Hutchinson, then 19 years old, attended a concert of an Austrian music group in Massachusetts. He was so impressed that he arranged for his family to give its own concert on Nov. 6, 1840, at the Baptist Meeting House in Milford. After local lawyer Solomon K. Livermore delivered a lecture on music, Jesse Hutchinson, the family patriarch, performed along with 11 of his children.
The event was a small triumph. According to the Amherst newspaper, the Farmer’s Cabinet, “The performances exhibited much skill and taste, and were happily varied with religious and secular pieces. The success of the brothers in giving a clear impression of the sentiment of the more difficult, yet pleasing passages, proved the capacity and richness of each individual voice. The singing of the sisters, though they were quite in the minority, was by no means lost, and especially when it was rightly balanced by the other parts, was full, expressive and touching…. The father…often led in some sacred song, showing his honored children to whom they were justly indebted for their musical ability.”
At the time John and three of his brothers — Jesse (age 27), Judson (age 24), and Asa (age 18) — were working at various jobs in Lynn, Mass. They rehearsed a program together, and advertised in the local newspaper that they would present a concert of vocal and instrumental music on the evening of Feb. 13, 1841, in Sagamore Hall in Lynn.
The concert took place, but no review exists. Afterward the brothers decided to put their musical ambitions on hold for a time. By late fall 1841, Judson (tenor), John (baritone), and Asa (bass), decided to make a go of it. They worked on a new performance program, and returned to Milford. Jesse, who had a wife and a baby boy, remained in Lynn where he worked in a hardware store. His three brothers went on to perform concerts in Wilton, New Ipswich, Hancock, Peterborough, and Nashua. They called themselves the Aeolian Vocalists, after Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds.
Judson, John, and Asa returned to Lynn in January 1842 for two concerts. At this time their sister, 12-year-old Abigail “Abby”, a contralto, joined them, enabling their little company to sing in perfect four-part harmony.
Next week: The Hutchinson family troupe embarks on a major tour, and Jesse takes on a new role.