In the early 1840s the Hutchinson Family Singers, a superb quartet with roots in Milford, performed to sold-out theaters from New England to Washington, D.C. The three brothers — Judson, John and Asa — and sister Abby (sometimes joined by brother Jesse, Jr.), also sang emancipation songs at important abolitionist gatherings.
In 1846 the Hutchinsons began to incorporate anti-slavery music into their regular public performance programs. This was a courageous move that served to encourage a wider public acceptance of abolitionist ideas. There was a great deal of sympathy in the north for the fate of the southern slaves, but a strong element of opposition to abolitionism also existed. While delivering their impassioned anti-slavery message through their music, the Hutchinsons were at times confronted with verbal taunts and threats of violence.
The Hutchinsons’ anti-slavery songs became a part of the popular culture of the time. Their first piece, written in 1844, was “Get Off the Track,” which was followed in later years by several other memorable tunes, including “Right over Wrong,” that states poetically, “The captive now begins to rise and burst his chains asunder, while politicians stand aghast in anxious fear and wonder.” Another affecting song was “The Slave’s Appeal” which demanded “Give us our freedoms, ye friends of equality; give us our rights for we ask nothing more.”
Over the years the Hutchinson Family Singers underwent changes in personnel. When the original quartet, known as “The Tribe of Jesse” (after the father of the 11 Hutchinson brothers and two sisters), toured Great Britain in 1845-1846, a temporary troupe made up of Caleb, Joshua, Rhoda and Zephaniah Hutchinson got together. Known as the “Home Branch of the Hutchinson Family,” they toured the northern states for several months.
When Abby Hutchinson stopped performing in 1849 after she was married, Judson, John and Asa continued touring as a trio, venturing into the midwestern states. In 1855 the three brothers founded the town of Hutchinson, Minn. Tragically, the Hutchinson family was thrown into a state of distress in 1859 with the suicide of brother Judson, the troubled comic of the troupe.
Soon after the start of the Civil War in April 1861 the Hutchinsons formed two traveling ensembles. The “Tribe of Asa” toured the midwestern states, spending the most time in Minnesota and Wisconsin—while the “Tribe of John” toured eastern cities and towns, and also performed in and near Union army camps and recruiting stations.
On Jan. 17, 1862, the “Tribe of John” was to perform at Fairfax Courthouse, Va., for the First New Jersey Regiment and other soldiers of the Union’s Army of the Potomac. When it became known that the Hutchinsons planned to sing “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast,” with words by the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier, two senior officers kicked them out as some of their soldiers were opposed to the song’s anti-slavery message. This matter was brought to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. After the song’s lyrics were read out loud at a cabinet meeting, Lincoln responded, “It is just the character of song that I desire the soldiers to hear.” The cabinet members voted unanimously to allow the Hutchinsons to perform again at Union facilities, and Lincoln issued an order to that effect.
Jesse Hutchinson, Jr., settled in Lynn, Mass. In 1847-1848 he built a stone cottage and a lookout tower for his family atop 170-foot tall High Rock, that rises above Nahant Bay. The tower was destroyed by fire in 1865. In 1904 the Hutchinson family donated the property to the city of Lynn. The city built a new tower, equipped for astronomical observation, which was completed in 1906. Today the cottage and tower form the centerpiece of High Rock Park, a spectacular site opened to the public.
The two “Tribes” of the Hutchinson Family Singers (eventually including some relatives of the 13 siblings) remained active into the 1880s. These enterprising pioneers of American popular music were influential in the abolitionist, temperance, and women’s suffrage movements.
In 1892 a newspaper writer in Akron, Ohio, wrote that, 50 years before, the Hutchinsons “delighted audiences with the wonderful sweetness and harmony of their fresh young voices…Their songs and manner were characterized by the utmost simplicity.”
Next week: Merrimack’s Walter Kittredge and one of the Civil War’s most remembered songs, “Tenting on the Old Campground.”