They look awfully emo don’t they? Manly, in a Walt Whitmanish way. There was a girl in the group, actually, but I can’t see that she’s in this picture.
Fascinating history of the Hutchinson Family Singers who were to the 18th century what the Backstreet Boys were to the 20th, except they used their pop fame to push for abolition with their massive smash hit song “Get Off the Track” which dropped in 1845.
I love reading about 19th century American history. We know so damn little of that first formative century of our history and it is fascinating for 1. how much of it is still resonant here in the 21st; and 2. how much of it seems unbelievable today.
Example 1. It’s no secret that the lingering residue of slavery, the Civil War fought over it, the Reconstruction period that didn’t come anywhere close to dealing with the deeply imbedded racism of America, are still affecting our lives and our politics today; and
Example 2. After racism one of the biggest roiling controversies of the 19th century was over paper money. Yes, the stuff in our wallets. Or used to be, as WE don’t even carry the stuff anymore, having progressed on to electronic credit. Can you imagine how mind blowing it would be for people who couldn’t get over the idea of using valueless paper as currency (instead of inherently valuable gold and silver), to understand using a plastic card as currency?
On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”
Like the Dixie Chicks 158 years later they used their massive popularity to sing about politics, the most controversial issue in the country, and the public that disagreed with their position exploded in anger.
At a time when a lot of popular entertainment was inherently racist blackface and minstrelsy, they were a group of singers that did theatrical popular entertainment that pushed themes of equality, women’s rights and when they decided to go for it, anti-slavery.
“And when they came to the chorus-cry that gives name to the song,” wrote N.P. Rogers, who witnessed the debut performance, “when they cried to the heedless proslavery multitude that were stupidly lingering on the track…standing like deaf men right in its whirlwind path, the way they cried ‘Get Off the Track,’ in defiance of all time and rule, was magnificent and sublime.”
The reaction was explosive. At first, John recalled, “the audience hissed; then some began to cheer, and there was a tug of war; finally the cheers prevailed.” After they finished, Abby wrote, “and when we sat down, the applause was tremendously overwhelming.”
The Hutchinson Family Singers went on to startling success. They toured Ireland, Scotland, and England with Frederick Douglass, and forced American theater owners to integrate their venues.