THE HUTCHINSON FAMILY SINGERS entertained countless audiences over four decades of touring that spanned the 1840s into the 1880s. These talented siblings, who grew up on a farm in Milford, delighted and enlightened the public with a wide variety of music, including anti-slavery songs and other tunes that reflected the social and political concerns of the day.
Another 19th-century entertainer who is recognized for his influence in the development of American song was also from New Hampshire. This is Walter Kittredge, who is known as the “Minstrel of Merrimack.” Walter composed more than 500 original songs during his long career. Today, he is most admired for his 1863 composition, “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground.” This mournful tune was sung by soldiers in both Union and Confederate army camps during the war, and it endured for decades afterward as a favorite at reunions of war veterans. Today, the song is often played by Civil War reenactment bands and singers.
Walter Kittredge was born in Merrimack in 1834. He was the 10th of 11 children of Eri Kittredge (1794-1864) and Lucretia Woods Kittredge (1796-1868). Eri Kittredge was a prosperous farmer and brickyard owner. The Kittredge homestead was located on Bedford Road in the Reeds Ferry section of Merrimack, near where ferryboats crossed the Merrimack River, connecting the town with Litchfield to the east.
When Walter was around 12 years old, Eri bought a seraphine (a type of melodeon or pump organ) made in Concord. Walter reminisced as an adult, “… well do I remember when the man came to put it up. To hear him play a simple melody was a rich treat, and this event was an important epoch in my child life.” Walter and his sister Sophia, who was four years older than him, taught themselves to play the instrument and how to sing well together in harmony. They gave impromptu concerts for the townsfolk and sang for the workers in their father’s brickyard. Walter also taught himself how to play the violin.
Walter received his early education in the district school near the family home. He then attended the Merrimack Normal Institute, graduating in 1851. The school had opened in 1849 as the first teacher-training school in New Hampshire, with Eri Kittredge as one of the investors. Its first principal was Professor William Russell, a graduate of Glasgow University in Scotland. Russell was a celebrated elocutionist (public speaker).
Likely inspired by Russell, Walter Kittredge began practicing his pronunciation and developing his stage demeanor, and he started thinking of pursuing a theatrical career. His parents, however, discouraged this, as they saw acting as a dishonorable profession. So, instead, Walter devoted himself to developing his musical abilities. He sought out members of the Hutchinson family, who generously helped guide him in his efforts.
In 1855, when he turned 21, Walter Kittredge bought a horse and wagon from an older brother. Armed with advertising handbills printed in Boston, he toured rural New England, performing in town halls, churches, and other venues to small audiences. Walter sang the old familiar songs and also gave dramatic readings of “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe and other poems. This maiden tour gave him the opportunity to develop his musical and stage skills.
The next year Walter started composing his own songs for his programs, and he also developed a professional association with the Hutchinson family. He performed with the Hutchinson quartet from time to time as a substitute when one member or another was not available. In the years before the Civil War Walter and Joshua Hutchinson, who was 23 years his senior, went on the road together, touring New England, New York, Pennsylvania and southeastern Canada.
Walter continued to write songs, and eventually the duo’s concerts featured mostly his original music. When the Hutchinson quartet began singing some of Walter’s music, his reputation as a composer grew. After the Civil War broke out in April 1861 he and the Hutchinsons provided entertainment at patriotic rallies organized in support of the Union cause. In 1862 he published 18 of his compositions in a book titled “Walter Kittredge’s Union Song Book Containing Some of His Most Popular Songs, Humorous and Sentimental.”
Next week: How Walter Kittredge’s “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” came to be written.