Hutchinson Family Singers
The Hutchinson Family Singers were an American family singing group who became the most popular American entertainers of the 1840s. The group sang in four-part harmony a repertoire of political, social, comic, sentimental and dramatic works, and are considered by many to be the first uniquely American popular music performers. The group formed in the wake of a string of successful tours by Austrian singing groups such as the Tyrolese Minstrels and when American newspapers were demanding the cultivation of native talent. John Hutchinson orchestrated the group's formation with his brothers Asa, Jesse, and Judson Hutchinson in 1840; the Hutchinsons gave their first performance on November 6 of that same year. Jesse Hutchinson quit the main group to write songs and manage their affairs; he was replaced by sister Abby Hutchinson.
The Hutchinsons were a hit with both audiences and critics, and they toured the United States. They popularized closed four-part harmony. The group's material included controversial material promoting abolitionism, workers' rights, temperance, and women's rights.
Formation and early performances
In the 1830s, European itinerant entertainers such as the Austrian Tyrolese Minstrels and the Strassers toured the United States and whetted American appetites for groups who sang in four-part harmony. John Hutchinson saw a Tyrolese Minstrels concert in either Boston or Lynn, Massachusetts, probably in 1840. He was impressed by what he heard, and he decided to teach the rest of his family to sing in the same style.
John Hutchinson and three of his brothers (Asa, Jesse, and Judson) dubbed themselves the Hutchinson Family Singers and gave their first concert in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1840. They performed again in Lynn the following year. The group sang mostly European songs, such as those by Henry Russell or the Tyrolese Rainers, but Jesse Hutchinson soon quit to write original material and to manage the group's affairs. The remaining three members eventually adopted the name Aeolian Singers. Twelve-year-old Abby Hutchinson, a high tenor, took Jesse Hutchinson's place to complete the quartet.
Judson had a naturally high voice, a pure tenor. My voice was a baritone, though I sang falsetto easily, and Asa had a deep bass. Abby had an old-fashioned "counter" or contralto voice. The result was an effect like that of a male quartet. Abby's part being the first tenor, Judson's second tenor, mine first and Asa's second bass, respectively. But we practiced an interchange of parts as we sang, and the blending of the voices was so perfect that it seemed quite impossible for the audience to distinguish the several parts.
The Hutchinsons performed across New England in 1842, taking in as much as $130 per performance. In 1843, Jesse wrote "The Old Granite State", a song about the Hutchinson family, their origins in New Hampshire, and their itinerant lifestyle. The song became their signature number.
American newspapers of the time were trumpeting "native talent", and critics responded favorably to the Hutchinsons' early concerts, although they did express misgivings about the group's song selection. After the Hutchinson Family Singers' first New York City concert on May 13, 1843, the New York Tribune wrote:
The Hutchinson family gave a concert on Saturday evening and acquitted themselves quite well. They . . . know how to make music, decidedly, though some of their songs are not well chosen either to gratify the audience or exhibit their peculiar powers. We wish they would take care to favor the unscientific public with the words of their songs distinctly. Russell does so, and it is to thousands one of the best points of his singing.
When the Hutchinsons' advertised in the Herald on May 13, 1843 that their program featured "their most popular Quartettes, Trios, Solos, such as have not failed to please fashionable audiences in Boston and many other cities and towns in New England," the Tribune responded:
They need not fear in New York to give us songs embodying Sentiment as well as those of a descriptive or humorous character. We trust they will be heard again and more than once in our city; for we are sure there are thousands among us who would hear them with signal satisfaction.
After a performance at the New York Society Library on May 17, the Tribune was more approving:
Their style of singing is admirable—simple, sweet, and full of mountain melody. Their voices are all rich and dear, and their whole execution is in a most chaste and grateful style . . . . Mr. Hutchinson not only sang ["The Maniac"] but acted it—and that in a manner not only perfectly chaste and without offending delicacy and decorum but with clear adherence to truth and great effect . . . .
The Tribune still disapproved of their song choices, asking "How can they choose [their programs] so badly?" and claiming that poems set to music and rehashed songs from other composers with only a few new pieces were not good enough.
Nevertheless, the Hutchinsons were a hit, the first American close-harmony quartet to see such success. They adopted the name Tribe of Jesse after further touring in 1843. Imitators appeared, and the Hutchinsons even toured with one of these, the Luca family, in 1859. Four-part harmony became an important component of all American popular music. Minstrel show troupes compared themselves to the Hutchinsons. In 1844, the Congo Minstrels advertised that "their songs are sung in Harmony in the style of the Hutchinson Family." Other minstrels parodied the group. The Harmoneon Family Singers (later the Boston Harmoneons) wore powdered wigs and faces and called themselves the Albino Minstrels or the Albino Family in what was supposed to be a blackface show.
In 1845, the family toured Great Britain. Meanwhile, Caleb, Joshua, Rhoda, and Zephaniah Hutchinson toured the United States under the name Home Branch of the Hutchinson Family. When the original group returned, they angrily put an end to the Home Branch. The Hutchinsons added several original songs at this time.
At the urging of Jesse Hutchinson, the group took up various causes. Among these were abolitionism, temperance, and women's rights. In December 1842, John Hutchinson signed a petition affiliated with an abolitionist rally in Milford. By the following year, the Hutchinsons had become vocal abolitionists. Asa Hutchinson wrote,
About this time  an antislavery convention was held in Milford attended by Wm. Lloyd Garrison. . . . The custom at once enlisted the sympathies of the young men. Accustomed to roam at freedom among their own Hills, they abhorred slavery and pitied the slave. More than this they nobly resolved to exert their influence on behalf of the captives. To this end they prepared and sang antislavery songs.
They traveled with Frederick Douglass in England in 1845 and stayed for almost a year. Original songs such as "Get Off the Track!", "Right over Wrong", and "The Slave's Appeal" addressed these issues. Abby Hutchinson wrote "Song of Our Mountain Home" in 1850. It includes the line, "Among our free hills are true hearts and brave, / The air of our mountains ne'er breathed on a slave."
The group, known colloquially as the 'Tribe of Jesse' was still quite popular at the onset of the Civil War, by which time they had split into two ensembles, the 'Tribe of John' and the 'Tribe of Asa'; both ensembles continued to bill themselves as the Hutchinson Family. The 'Tribe of Asa' relocated to the western part of the United States, performing in, among other places, Minnesota and Wisconsin; the "Tribe of John' stayed primarily in the eastern part of the country, and began to perform in and around the camps of the Union Army with the onset of the war. Judson missed these performances, as he had committed suicide by hanging himself in 1859, in the cellar of John's home known as the "Daisy Cottage".
Controversy ensued over a performance given January 17, 1862 at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, for troops of the Army of the Potomac. The concert was intended for the First New Jersey Regiment, whose Chaplain, R. B. Ward, was a friend of John's, but many other troops attended the performance as well. The Hutchinsons sang a musical rendition of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast”, which was a recasting of the Lutheran hymn, “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott” (itself based on Psalm 46), and provoked quite a reaction from attendees who objected to the tune's anti-slavery lyrics.
Modern Recordings of repertoire
Homespun America. New Hutchinson Family Singers (Eastman Chorale), Eastman Wind Ensemble; conducted by Donald Hunsberger and Robert DeCormier. Vox Box SVBX 5309. 3 LP record set. 1976. Re-issued as Vox Box CDX 5088. 2 Compact Disc set. 1993.
Issued in part to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, this anthology features many "hits" from the mid-19th century on this multi-album set. Most are instrumental works such as quadrilles, marches and polkas. But interspersed are song selections performed by a small group of vocalists known as the "New Hutchinson Family Singers" (really members of the Eastman Chorale). They perform four songs made famous by the "old" Hutchinson Family Singers: "The Old Granite State," "The Pauper's Funeral," "Get Off the Track," and the humorous "Calomel," which is about the chemical compound used as medicine, and sung (like “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast”) to the tune of Ein Fest Burg.
There's a Good Time Coming: and other songs by the Hutchinson Family. Lucy Shelton, soprano; Patricia Deckert, alto; Frank Hoffmeister, tenor; Jeffrey Gall, countertenor; David Evitts, bass; with accompanying musicians. Smithsonian N 020. LP record. 1978
This record album contains seventeen songs made popular by the Hutchinsons, including "The Old Granite State" and "Get On Track" but also lesser known ballads such as "Axes to grind," "The cot where we were born," and "The humbugg'd husband." Also featured is the famous "Welcome to Jenny Lind," composed by Jesse Hutchinson (lyrics by Bernard Covert) to greet the Swedish Nightingale on her U.S. tour, 1850-52.
Recorded at Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. with accompanying violin (Marilyn McDonald), cello (Kenneth Slowik), guitar (Howard Bass), piano and melodeon (director James Weaver), the album faithfully attempts to reproduce the authentic sound of the Hutchinsons.
The cover art is exceptional, evoking the 19th century aesthetic of the time, with individual portraits of Abby, Judson, John and Asa Hutchinson. The gatefold interior reproduces in facsimile tickets, playbills and posters from the group's career. The sixteen page 12 inch sepia-toned booklet features a lengthy illustrated history of the group written by James Morris, as well as extensive notes and lyrics for each selection and biographical information each performer. An added bonus are photographs of the historic instruments used to accompany the vocalists.
- Averill 23.
- Averill 24.
- Lawrence 228.
- John Wallace Hutchinson, Story of the Hutchinsons (Tribe of Jesse), 2 vols. (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), cited in Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Songs in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983), 144; quoted in Averill 24.
- Quoted in Lawrence 229.
- Lawrence 279 quoting the Tribune, May 26, 1843.
- Tribune, December 5, 1843, quoted in Lawrence 229, 31.
- Averill 27.
- Averill 35.
- Baltimore 1844 playbill from Cockrell 153; quoted in Averill 35.
- Martin 89.
- Lawrence 412.
- Lawrence 490.
- Averill 24–5
- Ellis 55.
- The Book of Brothers: History of the Hutchinson Family, NYC , privately published, 1852, p. 28, quoted in Ellis 55.
- Averill 25.
- Milford, June 26, 1850, WML, Hutchinson Family Scrapbook, Box 3, Item 122; quoted in Ellis 55
- Hutchinson, John Wallace (1896). Mann, Charles E., ed. Story of the Hutchinsons (Tribe of Jesse) (MULTIPLE FORMATS). 2 vols. with an introd. by Frederick Douglass (Repr. d. Ausg. Boston 1896. ed.). Boston: Lee & Shepard. p. xviii. Retrieved 7 December 2012.
- Hutchinson 1896, p. Preface.
- Hutchinson 1896, p. 356.
- Hutchinson 1896, p. 361.
- Hutchinson 1896, p. 1.
- Hutchinson 1896, pp. 362-363.
- McWhirter, Christian (2012). Battle Hymns: the Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 336; halftones, notes, bibl., index. ISBN 978-0-8078-3550-0.
- Hutchinson 1896, p. 382.
- Hutchinson 1896, p. 385.
- Averill, Gage (2003). Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony. Oxford University Press.
- Ellis, R. J. (2003). Harriet Wilson's Our Nig: A Cultural Biography of a "Two-story" African American Novel. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V.
- Lawrence. Strong on Music: Resonances.
- Martin, Charles (2002). The White African American Body: A Cultural and Literary Exploration. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
- Gac, Scott (2007). Singing For Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-century Culture of Antebellum Reform. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
- Hutchinson, John Wallace (1896). Story of the Hutchinsons (Tribe of Jesse). Compiled and Edited by Charles E. Mann. With an introduction by Frederick Douglass. Boston: Lee and Shepard. 2 vols. Link to full text at the Internet Archive.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hutchinson Family.|
- Free scores by Hutchinson Family Singers at the International Music Score Library Project
- The Asa B. Hutchinson and Family Papers are available for research use at the Minnesota Historical Society.