America's First Pop Stars (and Protest Singers)

At Frederick Douglass's funeral in 1895, a tall, heavily bearded white man sang a song that his brother wrote for Douglass, their mutual friend, in 1845. The man was John Hutchinson, the last living member of the wildly popular Hutchinson Family Singers, whose renown reached a peak at the same time as Douglass's, with whom the family had a decades-long association. The song was "The Fugitive's Song," written by Jesse Hutchinson Jr., from which we have a sheet-music cover in our Single-Owner Historical Auction, to accompany two original partial signatures of Douglass's.


The Hutchinson siblings were born in Milford, New Hampshire, in the early 19th century. There were 16 Hutchinson children, of whom 11 brothers and 2 sisters survived to adulthood. Joshua Hutchinson, in his A Brief Narrative of the Hutchinson Family, describes each of his brothers and sisters by their musical ability - music seems to have been an obligatory part of their childhood. A few of the siblings even bought themselves instruments, paid for by selling their own little crops of beans and vegetables.

Jesse Hutchinson, Jr. was the ninth-born sibling. He was the second Jesse Jr. - the first Jesse Jr. was the first-born son, who was killed at the age of nine when he took his father lunch at the family's saw mill and was struck by a falling stack of boards. Jesse Jr., the second, left home at 16 to take an apprenticeship in a printshop, and then settled in Lynn, MA, where he opened a hardware store. Several of his brothers followed him to Lynn, and by 1840 there were at least six Hutchinsons living in Lynn, opening businesses along one side of the main street in town. In 1841, Jesse, Asa, John, and Judson Hutchinson gave their first public concert in Lynn, and the Hutchinson Family Singers came to life.

After a short time, Jesse quit the stage to concentrate on management of the singing group and writing their music. Abby Hutchinson, the youngest sibling, took his place. In their earliest performances, the group traded on gimmicks - they wore Tyrolean outfits and played instruments with their feet. But at Jesse's urging they took on more serious, reformist themes. They left behind the Alpine clothes and sang about temperance, opposition to the Mexican-American war, and women's suffrage.

The Hutchinsons began to identify as abolitionists when Jesse Jr. met Frederick Douglass. Douglass moved to Lynn with his family in 1841, in a home down the street from Jesse's own. It was there that he wrote the autobiography that would make him famous, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Fugitive Slave. The Hutchinson Family hesitated to identify publicly as abolitionists at first - they were afraid they would alienate their audiences. Blackface minstrel shows were also hugely popular at the time, and public sentiment was only beginning to turn against slavery - five of the seven men who had been President of the United States owned slaves. But gradually, as their conscience and audiences demanded it, the Hutchinsons added abolitionist lyrics to their already-popular songs, like "The Old Granite State," their anthem to their home state of New Hampshire:
Yes we're friends of emancipation
And we'el sing the proclimation
Till it echoes through our nation from the Old Granite State
That the tribe of Jesse, That the tribe of Jesse
That the tribe of Jesse are the friends of equal rights.

Then, in 1845, at a show in New York City, The Hutchinson Family performed "Get Off The Tracks" - overtly abolitionist lyrics set satirically to the tune of the minstrel song "Old Dan Tucker." The response of their Northern audience was overwhelming. From then on, the Hutchinsons were firmly on the side of emancipation. Jesse wrote songs like "The Slave's Appeal" and "Right Over Wrong," they campaigned for Abraham Lincoln, and performed for Union Troops during the Civil War.

In 1845 Frederick Douglass had just published his autobiography, and it was highly acclaimed and widely read. Douglass and his family became concerned that the ensuing attention would result in his being returned to his slave-master in Maryland. For his own safety, Douglass decided to leave the country for an extended speaking tour in Great Britain. The Hutchinson Family Singers went with him. Together, they spent a year traveling through Scotland, Ireland, and England, speaking to the abolitionist cause in America. When they returned to the United States, the Hutchinsons and Douglass continued to share the stage frequently at abolitionist events. They had a profound effect on each other, and Douglass felt that the Hutchinson's songs were the musical manifestation of his cause.

Over the many years of their career, the Hutchinsons split into two bands, and various siblings and their spouses came and went as members. Jesse, who had played such a crucial role in their beginnings, outlived his immediate family and moved to California. Three other brothers moved to Minnesota and founded the town of Hutchinson, where drinking, gambling and bowling were forbidden, and women were allowed to vote. They published popular books of their songs and continued to champion their high moral standards, which always played a role in their success.

In 1896, when he was the last living Hutchinson sibling, John Hutchinson published his account of the family's career, The Story of the Hutchinsons. Frederick Douglass wrote the forward to the book before his death in 1895. In it he said of the family "their fine talent for music could have secured for them wealth and fame; but, like Moses, they preferred to suffer affliction in the cause of justice and liberty than to enjoy the fruits of a concession to slavery...I saw this family in all the vicissitudes of its career...I saw it in times that tried men's souls. I saw it in peace and I saw it in war; but I never saw any one of its members falter or flinch before any duty, whether or social or patriotic; and it is a source of more satisfaction than I can express, to have lived, as I have now done, to bear this high testimony to the character of the Hutchinsons."


Content created by the Leland Little editorial team