The Hutchinson Family Singers of Milford began as a trio that toured southern and central New Hampshire in the fall of 1841. In 1842 12-year-old Abby Hutchinson joined her older brothers Judson, John and Asa and the quartet went on the road in New England — with brother Jesse, Jr. as manager, songwriter and occasional singer.
In 1843 the Hutchinsons performed throughout the Northeast, and the next year they traveled as far south as Washington, D.C., attracting large and enthusiastic audiences at every venue. In 1844 attendance at one engagement in Manchester was 1,200, and the next day 2,000 tickets were sold for a concert in Nashua.
In January 1843 the Hutchinsons delivered several thrilling performances of abolitionist songs at a gathering in Boston of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In the spring of 1844 Jesse, Jr. wrote the pro-emancipation song “Get Off the Track!” His incendiary lyrics were set to powerful effect to the snappy tune of “Old Dan Tucker,” a racist song that was a staple of traveling minstrel shows. “Get Off the Track!” begins with the words “Ho! The car Emancipation, rides majestic thro’ our nation, bearing on its train, the story, Liberty, a nation’s glory.”
Although their anti-slavery sentiments were well-known, the Hutchinsons at first declined to sing abolitionist songs except at political gatherings, so as not to inflame societal tensions. However, as time went on, they changed their minds. They decided to break their self-imposed rule at a concert scheduled for March 19, 1845, in a Broadway theater in New York City. When it became known that the Hutchinsons intended to sing “Get Off the Track!” they were warned by their worried friends and by the local newspapers that they were taking a terrible risk.
Though frightened by threats from local anti-emancipation ruffians, the Hutchinsons went ahead with the concert as planned. When the quartet, joined by Jesse, Jr., performed a stirring rendition of “Get Off the Track!” there may have been a few people complaining in the audience. But, as Abby later recalled, “We were heartily cheered between all the verses, and when we sat down, the applause was tremendously overwhelming.” After this milestone, the Hutchinsons included anti-slavery songs as a regular part of their repertoire.
In August 1845 the Hutchinsons crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Royal Mail Ship Cambria with their friend Frederick Douglass. The former slave, now a renowned author and orator, was embarking on what would become a two-year lecture tour in Europe, while the Hutchinsons were beginning an 11-month concert tour of England, Ireland and Scotland. Some of the ship’s passengers had requested that Douglass give a talk, so on Aug. 27, the last day before the ship was to arrive in Liverpool, England, a lively group gathered on deck.
The Hutchinsons sang a tune, then Douglass began to speak. Almost immediately two unpleasant pro-slavery Americans, one from Connecticut and one from New Jersey, began heckling Douglass. They were joined by a vocal slaveholder from Cuba, and soon fights broke out among the audience members. The ruckus was quelled by the ship’s captain, who threatened to shackle the offenders, and no one was hurt. As Douglass later wrote, “The clamor went on, waxing hotter and hotter, till it was quite impossible for me to proceed. I stopped, but the cause went on. Anti-slavery was uppermost, and the mob was never of more service to the cause against which it was directed.”
The Hutchinsons gave their first concert in Great Britain on Sept. 10, 1845, in Liverpool. A local newspaper reported, “Their style of singing is entirely novel in this country. It appears to flow spontaneously from the heart. In solemn, plaintive, sentimental, and spirit-stirring, or humorous pieces, they are equally successful. There is a quiet quaintness about their manner …” The Hutchinson Family Singers would continue to charm audiences wherever they went.
In December 1846 the Hutchinsons presented a series of concerts in Philadelphia. When they insisted that the concert hall be integrated for one of these performances, with blacks sitting among the whites, the city’s mayor and the police department threatened to organize an anti-abolitionist mob to forcibly close the theatre down. The Hutchinsons reluctantly cancelled that engagement.
Next week: The Hutchinson Family Singers — into the Civil War and beyond.