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.”
“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”
It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders.
The song that would be performed the next night, “Get Off the Track!,” was unambiguous about the direction our young country was headed. It grafted an original antislavery lyric onto the borrowed melody of a racist tune, and the result was not just a hit, but a newfound popularity for the abolitionist movement. It’s not too much to say that the Hutchinson Family Singers helped invent pop stardom and punk rock; they subverted tired old tradition, turning it into successful new expression.
The Hutchinson Family Singers formed in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1839, and helped shape American music as independent from European. “Family concerts,” according to one historical article, “contained little of the operatic, less of the classical, and none of the mystical.” It was, instead, the origins of pop music. Particularly with the Hutchinsons, there was comedy, melodrama, morality tales, and a genre-defining stagecraft of non-musical cues — some of which bordered on hysteria They sang of lost children in the Alps, ships on fire, train wrecks, and the “progress of insanity.” (“No, by heaven I am not mad!” they screamed during the chorus of “The Maniac,” tearing at invisible asylum chains.)