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“Gac’s book is a rare work of cultural history that is a joy to read and that sheds enormous light on the era, suggesting the texture and feel of the time.”—John Stauffer, Harvard University
In the two decades prior to the Civil War, the Hutchinson Family Singers of New Hampshire became America’s most popular musical act. Out of a Baptist revival upbringing, John, Asa, Judson, and Abby Hutchinson transformed themselves in the 1840s into national icons, taking up the reform issues of their age and singing out especially for temperance and antislavery reform. This engaging book is the first to tell the full story of the Hutchinsons, how they contributed to the transformation of American culture, and how they originated the marketable American protest song.
Through concerts, writings, sheet music publications, and books of lyrics, the Hutchinson Family Singers established a new space for civic action, a place at the intersection of culture, reform, religion, and politics. The book documents the Hutchinsons’ impact on abolition and other reform projects and offers an original conception of the rising importance of popular culture in antebellum America.
“Gac’s book is a rare work of cultural history that is a joy to read and that sheds enormous light on the era, suggesting the texture and feel of the time.”—John Stauffer, Harvard University
"Scott Gac is a splendid narrative craftsman, schooled in history and musicology. His 'Singing for Freedom' is a unique and compelling book—the first work to carefully uncover the busy, fascinating intersection of music, popular culture, commerce, celebrity, and abolitionism. Behold: a time long before Bob Dylan when lyrics really mattered, and singing abolitionists were rock stars with political clout."—David W. Blight, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, Yale University
“The Hutchinson Family Singers were the era’s best-known musicians, admired by the powerful and powerless alike. Singing for Freedom illumines beautifully these extraordinary lives, etching sharply the highlights and the shadows.”—Dale Cockrell, author of Excelsior: Journals of the Hutchinson Family Singers, 1842-1846
In 1890 only John and Abby remained. The two had survived their siblings and many of their reform-minded friends. At sixty-nine and sixty-one years old, John and Abby continued to sing and otherwise advocate for a variety of reforms, especially civil rights, temperance, and women's rights. As part of the antislavery vanguard, they took part in countless events celebrating the role of abolitionists in ending slavery, occasions which in the closing decade of the nineteenth century lacked conviction. The emancipation of nearly four million slaves finalized by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 was a highlight in the lives of reformers, including the Hutchinson Family Singers; it was one of those successes fraught with failure.
The abolition of slavery in the United States relied upon the actions of the slaves, politicians, the military, and antislavery activists. That all of these forces came together for a brief moment ensured emancipation as the most astonishing event in nineteenth-century America. Yet nearly thirty years afterPresident Lincoln had sanctioned the Emancipation Proclamation, reformers were left feeling rather empty. They looked at the nation surrounding them, a nation that they had helped to shape, and wondered how much of it was worth celebrating. More than 600,000 soldiers had died in the Civil War, and for what? Capitalism, in a most greedy and exploitative form, was running rampant. The finishing touches were being added to the genocide of Native Americans. And many of the four million emancipated black Americans now lived under a grisly repression.
In their youth, antislavery advocates like the Hutchinson Family Singers held an unwavering belief that "moral suasion"-an appeal to the incorruptible heart in all people-and the aegis of a redemptive, indwelling God assured the triumph of Good over Evil. At the close of the nineteenth century, the Hutchinsons still foisted upon their listeners this ideology derived from the Second Great Awakening. But moral suasion and the sympathy for others that it required had seemingly lost the ability to breach the barrier of race. Many northern white listeners, the same ones who once had catapulted the Hutchinson Family Singers into the limelight, had stopped worrying over the plight of blacks. Black communities, meanwhile, often remained grateful for the musicians, reserving ceremonial spots for members of the group, as when John sang at the 1901 Howard University commencement. Yet even black Americans began casting a wary eye toward the Hutchinsons. Without great influence among a white coalition, the Hutchinsons' music no longer instantiated a biracial reform community. By 1890 the Hutchinson Family Singers could offer very little to African Americans who increasingly looked within themselves for political action and for protection from an increasingly violent racism.
The Hutchinson Family Singers, along with many other antislavery supporters, spent their final days reconciling their ultimate achievement with the moral disaster that followed. After the war, John, Asa, and Abby-the three remaining members of the musical troupe-tried to help the newly freed men and women, never ending their efforts to eliminate racial prejudice. A national objective to heal the war-torn nation, though, took precedence over lessening racial divides. The new-found cooperation between northern and southern leaders in the postbellum era neutralized the momentum of pre-Civil War reform. Reformer James Freeman Clarke observed, "The North and South are truly one; the American Union, this single root of bitterness [slavery] having been taken away, is vastly more powerful and more united, than ever." Clarke failed to mention that, within an environment obsessed with healing the wounds of war, the gap between races was growing.
As the success of emancipation came to be questioned from all angles, the Hutchinsons and others scrambled to secure their reform legacy. John Hutchinson feared that his life's work would fall prey to obscurity. On the centenary of his parents' wedding in 1900, he visited a subtreasury building on Wall Street. Here, John bought 1,500 one-cent pieces from the final issue of 1899. "I have lived a dozen lives in my seventy-nine years. The world is getting away from me now," explained John to the clerk. "My one wish now is to feel and know that some hundreds of the millions in this big land have in their keeping a memento of my family." With that, John started walking outside, a tried and true nineteenth-century reformer, handing out the last of the 1899 pennies.
The Hutchinsons' lives were not always so nostalgic. When the singers crafted their own brand of fashionable antislavery music in 1843, there was an air of possibility. Someway, somehow, the Hutchinson Family Singers always believed that they could improve themselves and their music so that the world would be a better place. "O there must be a revelation. I think the time is near when the Slave will be free," said Asa at his family's home in Milford. "Mankind will learn how to live and serve the God above. I rejoice in such reformation as the cause of Antislavery is bringing about. It is a part of the true principles of Christ, in fact the foundation."
Comparing the plights of the Hutchinson Family Singers in the 1890s and in the 1840s provides a fresh look at what happened to one of the most hallowed generations in American history. The rise of the Hutchinson Family Singers in the 1840s reveals a complex interaction of personal ambition, religion, reform, and consumerism alongside an antislavery network buttressed by influential leaders, a vast media, and a growing following. At the close of the century-focusing on the ebb and flow of a postwar antislavery meeting that mimicked the events of years earlier-the Hutchinsons' story yields insight into whether abolitionism was a failure, as some have suggested, or a success, as many believe. A fair evaluation should compare the objectives and accomplishments of reformers, and also situate reform aspirations within a particular moment in time. As John Hutchinson discovered in the 1890s, it is difficult for even the most passionate reformer to make a difference without a broad alliance.
Development, Scene One, 1893: The Legacy of the Hutchinson Family Singers and of Antislavery Reform
Those were inspiring days. I look back lovingly upon them; and I find it very hard to realize that so much of it has passed into oblivion, and that whatever remains is merely the cold record of history. -Lydia Maria Child, letter to Theodore Dwight Weld, July 1880
Everybody now is anti-slavery. It is honorable now to be a child of the man who "cast the first anti-slavery vote in our town"; or called "our first anti-slavery meeting"; or first entertained Garrison as guest, or Abby Kelley, or Frederick Douglass.... Everybody now is an abolitionist, or son, or grandson of an anti-slavery parentage, and so all seem to claim equal honor, so far as honor is due, for ridding the world of the sublimest scourge and curse that ever afflicted the human race. -Parker Pillsbury, Acts of the Anti-Slavery Apostles, 1884
Who can measure the influence of their songs of freedom upon the unformed opinions of the youth of the day? -Frank Carpenter on the Hutchinson Family Singers in Peterson Magazine, 1896
Danvers, Massachusetts, 1893
The air temperature lingered near forty-four degrees, normal for an April day in the Bay State. Soon after disembarking in Danvers, the many out-of-towners welcomed one another and then rushed to reception lunches. At one o'clock long-lost friends and former rivals exchanged more pleasantries, which filled the warm interior of Town Hall. April 1893. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had aged thirty years, and now more than 150 people gathered in this Massachusetts town to relive the excitement of days since past. The meeting began with the clamor and confusion often associated with remarkable get-togethers. But before celebrating their role in ridding the nation of slavery, the reunion's most prominent were to pose for a picture. The guests' lively conversations distracted them from the task at hand, and only the effort of William T. Clark of the Soule Photograph Company, who politely coerced the chatty visitors to stand still, salvaged the customary photo. With one last rush, all were positioned to be in the print.
A flash arced over the men and women poised before the camera, and the moment was secured for future generations. Clark's final product is masterful, capturing the congratulatory spirit and the chaos of the event-certainly no mean feat considering the circumstances (fig. 2). The image is humorous and earnest. The men and women in the photograph stand in two rows, with the row in back placed on a riser. In front of the first row sits a large arrangement of flowers in the middle of which are two larger-than-life portraits-one of William Lloyd Garrison, the other of the Rev. Samuel Joseph May. Two more sizable portraits loom as bookends for the first row; on the left Charles Sumner, and on the right John Greenleaf Whittier. Behind the attendees a very large American flag (presumably the forty-four-star flag that had become official in 1891) envelopes most of those pictured in its folds. A light drops from the ceiling in front of the flag, with two fixtures forming a cross over the guests, a shape accentuated by the way the flag is tied to three supports. Floating above their heads, the lights' white circular sconces hover as halos. Indeed, this was a saintly bunch, as these men and women were the final vestiges of the antislavery vanguard.
The haste of the endeavor is established by (at least) five blurred images in a picture embracing forty-three people. Somehow one woman was never identified, her name lost amid the confusion. All the activity was too much for Alfred F. Masury, the young boy caught in the foreground. Alfred turned back, facing the photographer with a thrill of expectation-watching everyone trying to situate, he didn't know what would come next. Then suddenly the camera clicked. A minute after the picture taking, it is easy to imagine Alfred a bit disappointed in his discovery that the excitement had been just for a photograph. When the guests broke from modeling and began a five-hour discourse on how important their lives had been, his distress probably reached a new high.
The Danvers Historical Society had brought everyone together for an Anti-Slavery Commemorative Meeting. Here, members gathered to recall America's "Second Revolution"-the freeing of the slaves-understood by everyone in attendance as a continuation of the nation's independence from Great Britain. William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., Parker Pillsbury, Lucy Stone, and George Putnam are just a few of the notables captured in the photo. Two heads to the left of center in the first row stands the star of the Danvers gathering, John Wallace Hutchinson, one of the founding members of the Hutchinson Family Singers.
The celebrants at the Anti-Slavery Commemorative Meeting surrounded themselves with suggestive imagery. The four men evoked through portrait represented a character that the conventioneers, reformers famous in their own right, deemed particularly worthy of remembrance. A prophet, a preacher, a politician, and a poet: Garrison, May, Sumner, and Whittier. These four had waged antislavery battles in different arenas and occasionally against one another. In 1893 the Danvers commemorators advanced the idea that each had been vital to the success of the movement.
William Lloyd Garrison glares out from an oval print centered prominently before the first row in the photograph. It was an appropriate position, as few would contest his placement within the pantheon of great American reformers. Garrison's was a legacy secured long before the slaves gained freedom. His public life began with his antislavery conversion in 1828 and continued as he placed his stamp on antebellum society through his newspaper, the Liberator, and through his stewardship of important antislavery organizations. The impeccably dressed and well-mannered Bostonian quickly developed into one of the leaders of American reform in 1831, when he shook a nation barely able to envision a gradual emancipation with an impassioned call to immediately stop the practice of slavery.
Antislavery located Garrison in the annals of American history, but he espoused many other progressive causes of his era. Pacifism and women's rights were particularly dear to him, and the editor rarely sacrificed one reform for the sake of another. When issues surrounding women in leadership ranks troubled the international antislavery movement in 1839 and 1840, Garrison stood firm in his belief that women were vital to the cause. This was the positive side of Garrison's idealism. His obstinacy made him equally infamous. Garrison believed that slavery unavoidably corrupted politics, and his refusal to work through the nation's political system was legendary. The Boston editor remained steadfast throughout his career, arguing that moral suasion-appealing directly to people to change the way they feel-offered the best alternative to the ballot box or to violence. Garrison's aversion to political affairs separated him from many friends as the climate shifted during the 1840s and 1850s, when antislavery fervor increasingly mixed with national politics.
Emancipation not only freed the slaves, it justified Garrison's cause and quieted his critics. One writer portrayed him as an antislavery bigot while acknowledging that "the future generation will look upon his severity of character, his bigotry, as we look upon the same faults in the grand men who laid the foundations of this republic-as spots upon the reputation of one the noblest men that ever lived." Following the war Garrison was heralded more often as a hero than as a heretic. His death in 1879 further enhanced a legacy soon recorded in an 1885 biography written by his sons Wendell and Francis. Of all the men whose portraits appear in the Danvers picture, Garrison is the one whose reputation needed the least stoking in 1893. At the convention he was represented by progeny as well as portrait. His commemoration was more a ritual than an announcement.
No one guaranteed reverence for the three remaining figures chosen to share the spotlight in the Danvers photo. The Rev. Samuel Joseph May was a Harvard graduate, connected to Boston's elite circles by kin. He left this comfortable network to join forces with William Lloyd Garrison in the campaign against slavery. Already considered a radical when he formed the Brooklyn Temperance Society in 1828 at his church in Brooklyn, Connecticut, the Unitarian minister completely alienated himself by promoting antislavery in the early 1830s. Eventually, only two churches in the greater Boston area, both headed by antislavery sympathizers, allowed May the pulpit. From one of these platforms the ordinarily genial May thundered out his "Discourse on Slavery in the United States" in 1831, a sermon that catapulted him to abolitionism's front line.
From this vantage point-estranged from family and church, but at home among reformers-May lived the rest of his life. With an undying gleam in his brown eyes, he demonstrated that he cared more for his sense of right than anything else. May once, to the consternation of his white listeners, invited a black family to move to the front pew of his church because their number had outgrown the space reserved for them in back. Another time, at a meeting in Haverhill, rocks flew through the windows, and the locals readied a canon while May calmly led his antislavery followers to safety. He fought valiantly for the abolitionist cause throughout the 1830s and became Garrison's closest friend-performing the editor's marriage in 1834 and, over the years, providing counsel. Lydia Maria Child acknowledged May's rectitude by dedicating An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans to the minister "for his earnest and disinterested efforts in an unpopular but most righteous cause."
After two decades of antislavery crusading, years of unfulfilled activism would boil over when May broke his vow of nonviolence in order to ensure the freedom of a fugitive slave. In 1851 May led the unarmed mob that stormed a Syracuse prison to free Jerry McHenry. This placed him at odds with William Lloyd Garrison, yet unlike many who fell from grace in Garrison's eyes, May salvaged the relationship. The portraits of these two friends stood side by side on the Danvers stage, each with its own light casting a soft shadow on the surrounding reformers.
Excerpted from Singing for Freedom by Scott Gac Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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