- Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Antebellum Reform
If Elvis Costello is right that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, Scott Gac shows that music nevertheless provides a fascinating [End Page 488] window into American cultural history. Focused mostly on the decade of the 1840s, Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Antebellum Reform offers a detailed and admiring account of the abolitionist quartet’s rise to fame, along with broader observations on reform, religion, and popular music. Placing the group’s career in the context of the political history of the antislavery movement, Gac argues that the Hutchinson Family Singers’ tremendous mass appeal illustrates the “vibrant cultural space created by waves of reform pulsating through the United States” (4). The Hutchinsons adopted familiar melodies from church hymns and blackface minstrelsy and added their own innovative vocal harmonies and lyrics that drew their power from evangelical religion and moral reform. Gac describes how this musical amalgamation marked the emergence of a newly distinctive and commercially successful identity for American musicians, enabling them to challenge the long-standing prominence of European performers. Further, the successful commercialization of abolitionist music represented nothing less than a “technological transformation of antislavery,” generating mass appeal and energy for the formally staid movement (68).
Both an accomplished musician and academic historian, the author has a highly developed appreciation for music that shapes the study in several ways. Antebellum historians have often reduced the history of music to socioeconomic developments; for instance, linking musical literacy and parlor pianos to the social aspirations of the middle class. By contrast, the content of the Hutchinson Family Singers’ music plays a central role in Gac’s story. Fans flocked to their concerts, he writes, because the music was vibrant and uplifting. This fact is vividly illustrated in an anecdote about Henry Alexander Wise, a proslavery congressman from Virginia, who eagerly shook the hands of the Hutchinson singers after a performance, apparently unaware of the antislavery meaning of their lyrics (175). Gac’s musical training may also explain his choice to adopt a complex structure of thematic chapters, and label them according to the parts of a musical score. Preceded by a prelude, four “parts” are divided into various “expositions,” “developments,” and “themes,” interrupted by an “intermission” and followed by a “finale.” “Part First,” for instance, consists of two “scenes,” juxtaposing moments in the Hutchinsons’ career. The first scene offers an extended meditation on the significance of an 1893 reunion of antislavery activists, and the [End Page 489] second documents the process and significance of the Hutchinsons’ choice in 1843 to sing in support of abolition.
Singing for Freedom presents an original and revealing account of the market imperatives that American musicians faced in the mid nineteenth century. Tracing the group’s rise from obscurity in rural New Hampshire to international fame, Gac portrays the Hutchinson singers as highly principled but savvy entrepreneurs. What made them “unique was their combining of social reform, music, and tremendous popularity” (14), Gac argues, beginning a tradition in American popular music that continues today. Certainly, when reading about the Hutchinson Singers’ tours, finances, and marketing strategies, it is hard not to think of the enormous popular success of protest singers during the social reform movements of the 1960s, such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Rather than selling t-shirts, the Hutchinson Singers used performances to market their sheet music and lyric books—a strategy that, Gac demonstrates, proved very lucrative. These two impulses, moral conviction and material acquisitiveness, were not contradictory. Indeed, Gac writes, “the key” to the success of the group was their “moral fortitude” (16). The tremendous wealth they garnered—occasionally earning as much as $1,000 for each performance—was a happy by-product of their remarkable ear for melody and lyric writing.
This study joins a growing body of scholarship that focuses on the increasingly diverse activities and cultural...