The first tentative concert given by 12 members of the Hutchinson family in their hometown of Milford in November 1840 was the beginning of an extraordinary decades-long chronicle. In February 1841 four young adult sons of Milford’s Jesse and Mary (Leavitt) Hutchinson gave their own concert in Lynn, Mass., where they were living.
These were Jesse, Jr., Judson, John and Asa. That fall Jesse, Jr. remained in Lynn, but the other three brothers moved back to Milford and soon went on the road in New Hampshire performing concerts (occasionally with Jesse, Jr. joining them), and billing themselves as the Aeolian Vocalists. In January 1842 Judson, John, and Asa were joined by 12-year-old sister Abby for two concerts in Lynn, Mass.
That summer the quartet made a concert tour of New England towns and cities where they delighted audiences with their perfect four-part harmonies. John was a superior baritone; Asa a perfect tenor; and Abby the audience favorite with her fresh demeanor. Judson was the humorist who became known for singing such songs as the “The Bachelor’s Lament” and the “Humbugged Husband.” Older brother Jesse, Jr. helped to manage the group. He also composed original music for his siblings to perform and occasionally joined them onstage.
Beginning in 1843 the Hutchinson Family Singers (as they became known) continued performing at concert halls, auditoriums and churches.
In May they made their first appearance in New York City before an audience of 3,000. They were admired by their largely middle-class devotees for their vocal abilities, their wide-ranging repertoire, and their modest and folksy manners.
That year Jesse, Jr. wrote the song that would become the Hutchinsons’ signature piece, “The Old Granite State.” The lively tune celebrated the singers’ humble origins in small-town Milford, their tight-knit family, and their Yankee heritage.
The song, arranged for mixed voices with piano accompaniment, was published as sheet music, and over the next several years was reprinted in several editions. “The Old Granite State” and other original songs by the Hutchinson Family Singers became woven into the popular culture of the time, contributing to the creation of a distinctly American approach to music that drew freely from many sources.
Although the Hutchinsons’ performances included a mixture of sentimental, romantic, operatic, religious, patriotic, and comic numbers, the singers didn’t shy away from expressing their political and moral views through their music. For example, “The Old Granite State” contains the words “We are all teetotalers and have signed the Temperance pledge!” The Hutchinsons became well-known for their anti-alcohol stance, and they were hired as featured performers at temperance rallies, where they sang such songs as “King Alcohol,” “Shun the Wine Cup,” and “Oh, That’s the Drink for me!”
The troupe also sang songs favoring workers’ rights, prison reform and other causes. Anti-slavery sentiment ran deep in some parts of New Hampshire, and in particular in Milford, so early on in their touring career the Hutchinsons began identifying themselves as abolitionists. Cementing the Hutchinsons’ commitment to the cause was the fact that Jesse Hutchinson became a friend of Frederick Douglass while the two men were living in Lynn in 1842. Douglass, an escaped slave from Maryland, was an inspiring orator and social reformer. The Hutchinsons became recognized for singing bold anti-slavery songs, including “The Slaves Appeal,” “Good Time Coming,” “O, Liberate the Bondsman,” and “Uncle Sam’s Farm.”
The 11th annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society was held from Jan. 25-27, 1843 in Faneuil Hall in Boston. Frederick Douglass spoke, as did other renowned abolitionists, including publisher William Lloyd Garrison and attorney Wendell Phillips. As reported in Garrison’s Boston newspaper The Liberator on Feb. 3, 1843, several “heart stirring” and “thrilling” songs were performed during the three-day convention “by the Hutchinson family, the celebrated vocalists from New Hampshire.”
After a resolution was presented in opposition to the nomination of slave-owner Henry Clay of Kentucky as a candidate for the presidency of the United States, “The Hutchinsons followed, in a most thrilling strain, which was rapturously applauded, and, on its repetition, was received with loud cheers.” The resolution passed. Clay would win the Whig Party nomination, and would lose the 1844 election to James K. Polk, Democrat of Tennessee.
Next week: A European tour, abolitionism and the Civil War.