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August 26, 2021

19th Century Rock Stars: Early Photos of the Hutchinson Family Singers From the 1840s

The Hutchinson Family Singers took 19th-century America by storm. Their fame rivaled and even outshone the stars of today. Through their performances in front of interracial audiences, they also changed hearts and minds about some of the big political issues of the day, like slavery and womens’ rights. They 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 eleven sons and two daughters gave their first performance on November 6 of that same year. The popularization of group singing in America arguably began with them. 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 four-part close harmony. The group’s material included controversial material promoting abolitionism, workers’ rights, temperance, and women's rights, all stances popularized by the Second Great Awakening.

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.”


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