The Famous NH Family You’ve Never Heard Of (Probably)
Do you know about the Hutchinson Family Singers? We're guessing the answer is "no." It's time you learned about this once-famous Milford family that used song to advocate for emancipation in the years leading up to the Civil War.
For three New Hampshire brothers and their kid sister, Tuesday, July 12, 1842, was a perfect summer day. They had left their Milford home the afternoon before in a horse-drawn carriage that took them north up Mont Vernon Hill, with its sweeping views over the Souhegan Valley, then down into New Boston, where they crossed the Piscataquog and stopped to buy violin strings, oats for the horses and five cents’ worth of candy. They reached Weare by evening.
On Tuesday morning, as they rode east into the Merrimack Valley, they talked and joked and sang songs. Singing was, in fact, their trade — or at least that’s what they were trying to show the world.
It was warm and the sky was clear. Everywhere, farmers were out making hay. “[O]ur music tended to make them more happy and spirited,” one of the brothers noted. In East Weare, they slaked their thirst with two quarts of “excellent new milk,” and later on, in Dunbarton, they paused under a shade tree beside a house and sang until its owners came out and fed them homemade bread and cheese. In exchange, they gave their hosts 25 cents and two more quartets, which “accompanied with guitar sounded beautifully.”
Meanwhile, fields a thousand miles to the south must also have teemed with sweaty farm workers that day — though it’s unlikely that they were saluted with pretty songs by lusty youths. To be sure, they had music of their own to soften the drudgery, but one wonders how far it can really have gone in making the slaves feel “more happy and spirited.”
One such Southern bondsman — not a field worker — had successfully fled north just four years earlier and recently befriended the three brothers who now rolled through the idyllic New Hampshire countryside. Meeting him was one factor that would turn them to musical crusading.
But crusaders are not made overnight. So the brothers and their sister had embarked on a tour through New England’s hills in order to test their powers on familiar turf.
The fugitive slave was Frederick Douglass. The four siblings would come to be known as the Hutchinson Family Singers.
Douglass is rightfully remembered in every school history book today, but the itinerant singing family is all but forgotten. Still, by 1846, you’d have been hard-pressed to find an American living between Maine and Ohio who didn’t know of them.
The Hutchinsons stuck with touring, and, as their popularity increased, they traveled farther afield. But they never let the world forget where they came from. They closed every concert with the same song, “The Old Granite State.” This represented much more than mere provincial pride.
It’s true that, on one hand, it was an assertion of the native quality of their music at a time when American audiences took a condescending view of entertainment originating in the New World. The best-loved performers of the age were a piano-playing English chanteur and a family ensemble from the Alps. Not far below the surface, though, there was a rich vein of cultural nationalism just waiting to be tapped.
The Hutchinsons knew an opportunity when they saw it, and they seized this one. The first handbill they ever had printed read, “When foreigners approach your shores, / You welcome them with open doors; / Now we are come to seek our lot, / Shall native talent be forgot?” While their early music and image surely owed much to the cultural climate, they were able to capitalize on the fact that they were from here.
On a deeper level, however, their signature song was also a testament. Tucked away in its later verses are lyrics like, “Equal liberty is our motto,” “we despise oppression” and “we’re friends of emancipation.” Heady stuff for a pop song, but that’s precisely what set the Hutchinsons apart and why they still fascinate historians. Despite the risks it posed to their mass appeal, they used this song and others that were even bolder as vehicles for their progressive ideas on issues ranging from temperance to women’s suffrage, alternative medicine, prison reform and, above all, abolitionism.
We forget today, but, at one time, New Hampshire was something of an abolitionist hotbed. The prominent radical antislavery newspaper, Herald of Freedom, was published in Concord by lawyer Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, who had abandoned his lucrative practice for the cause. In the 1844 presidential election, the Liberty Party, premised on the abolition of slavery, garnered a higher percentage of the vote here than in any other state, with more than 30 percent of Milford’s population lending it their support. And, in 1846, Granite Staters elected John P. Hale, the first overt abolitionist to reach the national political stage, to represent them in the US Senate.
Leading antislavery activists like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips learned early of the young New Hampshire musicians’ sympathies and recognized an opportunity in their massive popularity and respectably endearing image. The troupe was invited to sing at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Faneuil Hall in January of 1843, where they did not disappoint.
Just as the famously eloquent Phillips reached “the loftiest pitch of his fine genius,” the Hutchinsons rushed on stage. Jesse, their older brother and sometime manager, had extemporized a set of verses based on Phillips’ discourse, and the quartet now launched into them, “[taking] up the argument where [Phillips] had left it … and carry[ing] it off heavenward.” The crowd sprang to its feet and joined in. “It was not,” Nathaniel Rogers reported, the “mobocratic shouting of the blind partisan, or the unearthly glee of the religious maniac — it was humanity’s jubilee cry … I wish … the entire country could have been there … Slavery would have died of that music.”
For the next two and a half years, the Hutchinsons toured extensively up and down the Eastern Seaboard, as far south as Washington, DC. They sang at reform-minded functions, in churches, to impromptu gatherings and to packed urban concert halls. More and more often, they composed their own songs, and their sheet music sales shot into the thousands. In the fall of 1845, they set sail for the British Isles, where they toured successfully for nearly a year, drawing a record audience of 4,000 on a single night in Manchester, England.
Back in the summer of 1842, when they had embarked on that first tentative tour through northern New England, the Hutchinsons were young and had very little idea of what they were doing. Abby, everyone’s favorite, was just 12. Judson, perhaps the most artistically gifted of the bunch, was the oldest at 25. In the middle were Asa, the 19-year-old black sheep whose deftly modulated bass tones were indispensable, and 21-year-old John, the supremely confident torchbearer, who would do his best to carry the familial legacy into the 20th century, vainly battling the inexorable tide of obscurity.
The Hutchinsons kept a shared journal that affords us intimate glimpses into their daily life on the road. Near Glens Falls, NY, in 1842, we see them as starving artists: “Did not pay our expenses last night. May not tonight.” Crossing the Green Mountains between Woodstock and Rutland, a family fight breaks out. Asa reports, “We … had a scuffel, in which Judson had his wristband torn of[f], Abigail had her Fingers numbed and I had my Coat torne and the Skin of one of my knuckles bruised. The particulars I shall not state as I may in the minds of Judson and John deviate from the truth. I will barely say that I was pretty severely struck by Judson before I retaliated.”
And then there was Judson’s depression, which manifests in the journals as disjointed stream-of-consciousness departures from conventional reality. The whole family was prone to melancholy, but, from very early, Judson appears to have had an uncanny sense of death’s nearness. One night in Rochester, NY, John looked over his brother’s shoulder as he penned a letter home to Milford. He watched him inexplicably sketch two coffins, head to head, into the margin.
Three weeks later, their brother-in-law died of typhoid fever on a Sunday and was joined on Monday by their brother Benjamin. On Tuesday, grieving in the halls of the old home, John walked into a room and saw two coffins set out for the double funeral, head to head, just as Judson had drawn them.
Perhaps it was the family’s collective inclination to acute sensitivity and brooding that made them surprisingly open to vocalizing their recurring fears that Judson might take his own life one day. Or maybe it was that they lived in an age when death was not the stranger it has since become.
To our jaded 21st-century sensibilities, the blend of despair and optimism in the Hutchinsons’ lives, and of naïveté and worldliness in their art, seems dissonant to the point of incomprehensibility — paradoxically at odds with the flawless vocal harmony that made them America’s favorite musical entertainers for a decade. Especially when we hear their songs, which sound very old-fashioned, it elicits a smirk to imagine them as culturally akin to today’s dissolute pop stars. Yet, unlikely as it may seem, the Hutchinson Family Singers are, all things considered, probably the biggest celebrities ever to come out of New Hampshire.
To imagine popular music (or, more precisely, how the kind of music the Hutchinsons sang could be so popular) in an age before audio recording is almost impossible for us. The monumental shift in both the soundscape and popular taste that took place after the Civil War put that world still further beyond reach. Music then was a shared experience, a dialogue between performer and audience, far more than it is today. Genres existed but were malleable, and the lines dividing high-, middle- and lowbrow were blurry. The closest many of us may be able to get to a feeling for the mid-19th-century performance scene are the folk-like singalongs of our childhood — but then we flirt with absurdity and risk condescension.
What did the Hutchinson Family Singers sound like, and why did people so love their music? Are those even important questions? They certainly are if we listen to music for enjoyment and not merely to gauge the pulse of the culture.
Early on, the Hutchinsons were praised (and even billed themselves) as the “New Hampshire Rainers.” The original Rainers were a troupe of singing brothers and sisters that came to the United States from the Austrian Tyrol in 1839 and proved wildly popular. Audiences loved the way they blended their voices into rich and seamless harmonies. It called to mind the Alps. The Hutchinsons’ tightly harmonic singing style was a clear emulation of the Austrians’ Alpine sound, and, in “The Old Granite State,” they sought to craft an image of themselves as mountaineers, too. In the early days, Abby was even made to dress up in Tyrolean costume.
A more persistent musical sensation, from the 1820s onward, was Henry Russell, an Englishman who paid several extended visits to North America. He sang bel canto-inspired set pieces to his own piano accompaniment. Russell toured extensively, and his sheet music, the measure of financial success in the pre-recording age, was much in demand. The Hutchinsons borrowed many of Russell’s songs and composed some of their own in his style. A notable example is Judson’s “The Vulture of the Alps,” the most European piece in the family oeuvre, which is often held up as proof that they were not simply hacks who got lucky.
The singers took these sources and mixed them with the formal New England hymn-singing tradition prevalent in their church life and the related but rather livelier strain of revival music that had begun ringing through the country in the 1820s. For lyrics, they injected much of their own content, ranging freely from piety to silliness, sometimes even within the same song. They unrepentantly championed their pet causes, which were many. “Calomel” was a saucy indictment of the then-common use of mercurous chloride in medical practice, sung to a tune reminiscent of a liturgical hymn, while “King Alcohol,” a catchy temperance glee, was based on an English folk melody.
But their best-known and most-controversial conscience number was the blustery abolitionist rallying cry “Get Off the Track,” which they began performing in the spring of 1844. Older brother Jesse wrote the words, and, for a tune, he borrowed a rollicking blackface minstrel melody. The loan packed serious ironic punch, given the blackface genre’s association with racism. And, musically, it worked. The song’s furious rhythm and the way the demand for justice bursts from the lyrics put modern listeners in mind of Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs. Perhaps it’s this point of contact that makes “Get Off the Track” the Hutchinson song far and away most accessible to 21st-century ears.
It was also the song that most easily infuriated 19th-century defenders of the status quo. Newspapers in New York encouraged the Hutchinsons to keep it under wraps when they performed for paying audiences, to save it for the reform crowd and their goodwill meetings. The Boston Atlas editors chastised them routinely for their refusal to comply: “… if audiences can be entertained with the trashy words of this song, their poetical taste must be of a very low order.” The Hutchinsons’ approach was deliciously insubordinate: “As long as nothing was said, we could take our choice; but if we were told we must not sing a song that expressed our convictions, we felt then that, come victory or defeat, we must cry aloud and spare not, and the song was sung with a serene sense that God would help us to do our duty.”
For the most part, however, the press and the public raved about the winning New Hampshire songsters. Their music was “the perfect blending of harmonious voices, the practical skill, the admirable expression, the intonation, the articulation, that delights the ear,” according to the Washington Daily National Intelligencer. In New York, Walt Whitman wrote often and favorably of them as heralds of a “new and true” American music that was “simple, fresh, and beautiful.”
The America of Whitman and the Hutchinsons was a complex, dynamic and ebullient place — at once beautiful and ugly, vigorous and sickly, free and shackled. In their early days, no one seemed terribly bothered by the siblings’ antislavery leanings. After all, they were just a bunch of lovable, rustic youngsters, while the radical emancipationist intelligentsia cheering them on were famously adamant about their refusal to resort to politics. So how much of a threat could the troupe really pose? Theirs was just one voice among the multitudes that Whitman heard singing America every day.
But the Hutchinsons felt divinely inspired to bring together the splinters of abolitionism, and, as time went on, many saw the specter of emancipation looking more and more real.
Sectional conflict came to dominate the political landscape. As the country drifted toward war, people stiffened in fear of the future. Especially in the Mid-Atlantic, where antislavery sentiments were not as strong as in New England, segments of the Hutchinsons’ audience would no longer indulge them. The siblings’ unwillingness to sing to a segregated audience in Philadelphia in December of 1846 ended in the cancellation of their performance. Anti-abolitionists who had been poised to mob if the show had gone on told one newspaper, “When people carry their Negro feelings beyond Massachusetts they carry their ‘wool’ to a market that won’t pay.”
In his memoir, John Hutchinson would remember 1859 as “a terribly broken year … The conditions that culminated in the John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution were staring us in the face, and the long-expected war was imminent.”
A decade earlier, Abby had married, effectively putting an end to the heyday of the Hutchinson Family Singers. The three brothers continued to perform sporadically but never with the same verve as before.
Then, one day, in January of 1859, John discovered Judson hanging from the end of a rope. “The shadow that had been over him … was removed,” the younger brother wrote, “and that noble soul, that had in it so much that could help and uplift humanity, was released from a bondage that had so hindered its fullest development.”
John Brown’s bloody attack on Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in October of that year brought sectional conflict to a fever pitch, and, 18 months later, civil war broke out. Almost exactly four years after Judson’s suicide, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the first step in freeing four million African-Americans who had until then been considered property under the laws of this country.
It marked the dawn of a new age in American life. Change would not come overnight, but, from the ashes of slavery, war and Reconstruction, an unforeseen chorus of new voices would eventually rise up singing. No longer would American popular music take its cues from Europe, but rather from the earthy and soulful sounds that had been pent up for more than two centuries, fermenting in anguish, on the plantations of the South.
The simple songs of an idealistic family from the New Hampshire hills had helped set free this resounding mass of voices. Ironically, their own attempts to forge a new music were swallowed up in the process, like autumn’s stepping stone in a spring freshet.
“No matter how appealing their story may be,” writes one historian, “the fact remains that they outlived their songs. Not one achieved enough lasting popularity to be included in the various retrospective song anthologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” After the trauma of the mid-century, another scholar observes, “talk of the millennium had suddenly become quaint.”
But when that hopeful tone was silenced, something was lost. It would take another struggle for justice a century later to make the loss felt. The Civil Rights Movement would again put people in mind of the millennium, prompting them to sing,
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome one day.
“About all a human being is,” Woody Guthrie said, “is just a hoping machine.” It’s just that we sometimes need a song to remind us.
The place it all began still stands in Milford.
The Hutchinson family’s home is now privately owned by John Morison and serves as headquarters for his family business, Hitchiner Manufacturing. You might not be able to tour the house in person, but here’s a look inside this historic landmark.
The house, built by Col. Joshua Burnham, was originally intended to be a hotel. However, lacking the funds to complete the project, he sold it to Jesse Hutchinson in 1824. It was Jesse who eventually finished the house. The granite in the foundation comes from a quarry on the farm — some blocks are eight to nine feet long, and all of the lumber came off the property. The woodwork throughout the house is beautifully carved. An interesting architectural element is the flight of “ship stairs” (wide stairs going from front and back of hall), which meet halfway up on a landing, then turn at a right angle and ascend to the second floor. Large fireplaces with beautifully carved mantels make the rooms even more attractive. The two lower back rooms each have an old bake oven inserted beside the fireplace.
The statue of Harriet Wilson in Milford’s Bicentennial Park.
Milford’s connection to literary history
Harriet Wilson, who began her life as an indentured servant in the 1830s on a Milford farm, ended up writing an important piece of American literature. Wilson is considered the first African-American woman — as well as the first African-American of any gender — to publish a novel in the US. “Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,” which was somewhat autobiographical, detailed the life and suffering of Frado, a mixed-race child who, abandoned by her mother, becomes a servant for a white family in the free North. “Our Nig” was published in 1859 but was lost until its rediscovery in 1982. The book, to put it mildly, does not paint Northerners in a very good light. It’s theorized that the novel wasn’t appreciated by abolitionists at the time since, rather than criticizing the South, it brought to light the often horrendous treatment of indentured servants in the North. Nevertheless, today, “Our Nig” is recognized for what it is — a remarkable literary achievement that offers a unique and important view on a turbulent — and often ugly — time in America’s past.
Historical context – a timeline of abolitionist influences and events
- Meeting and befriending a former slave, Frederick Douglass, led the siblings to musical crusading. The family is known to have traveled with Douglass to England to help deliver his message of freedom.
- The Abolitionist movement was active in New Hampshire. A prominent anti-slavery newspaper, Herald of Freedom, was being published in Concord.
- The Hutchinson Family was invited to perform at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Faneuil Hall in January of 1843.
- On October 16, 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. He hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The raid was a catalyst for the Civil War.
- In September 1862, Abraham Lincoln meets with Union Major General George McClellan at Antietam, the first major battle of the Civil War fought on northern soil.
- Four months later, Lincoln issues “The Proclamation of Emancipation.” It changed the federal legal status of four million enslaved people in the designated areas of the South from “slave” to “free.”