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John had stars in his eyes, starting at a very early
Brother John and probably Jesse heard the Rainer Family, a European vocal group whose concerts in Boston, late in the year 1840, were all the rage. John said, "I was overwhelmed, though of course I could not understand their words. Ditson soon published their songs, with English words, and of course I remembered their Tyrolean style of singing, and taught the rest how to sing them as the Rainers did." And so the Hutchinsons adopted at least some aspects of the part-singing style of the Rainer Family - a style that was dear to John's heart.
The Hutchinsons were an unusually well-rehearsed vocal group, and John often spoke of their harmonizing as though he were describing a religious experience. "The leading characteristic," he said, "in the 'Hutchinson Family's' singing
On Tuesday, February 21, 1843, at Milford, New Hampshire, John Hutchinson married Frances Patch (1822-1888). She was familiarly known as Fanny.
During the first few years of the Hutchinson Family quartet, the press tended to focus on Judson and Abby. Those notices that mentioned John often commented, not on his singing, but rather on his acting ability. The theatrical dimension that John added to Hutchinson Family shows may have been his greatest in-concert contribution to the group's early success. At the same time, it may have done much to separate the Hutchinsons from the pack.
Certain longer dramatic numbers gave John a chance to work his special magic; and there was no better example than Henry Russell's song, "The Ship on Fire." As the tale began, a ship at sea was being battered by a storm at night, under a dark sky. After a while, the storm passed. At a turning point in the story, Judson, seated on stage, would shout the word "Fire!" with all his ventriloquial power. "Instantly," said John, "I would turn my head in the direction from which it was supposed to proceed. Asa would follow with a rumble on his viol, in exact imitation of the roll and rattle of a fire-engine hurrying through the streets." Often members of the audience would be so caught up in the drama of an advancing inferno that they would rise from their seats and rush to the exits.
On a few occasions, Hutchinson Family tours were interrupted or postponed because of the illness of one or more of the singers; and sometimes John traveled around as a solo act. It is interesting, then, that, when the main group finally broke up in 1858, he was the last to form his own troupe, apparently holding out for a reconciliation among the brothers.
The Hutchinson Family quartet rode particularly high from 1844 through 1848; but well into the twentieth century, the Hutchinsons were remembered mostly for their activities during the Civil War. Asa's company popularized several classic war songs, such as "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" and "The Battle Cry of Freedom." John sang for Abraham Lincoln at the White House and made widely-reported appearances in Union army camps. Companies led by John and Asa sang at huge Union rallies, as did Brother Joshua and his frequent singing partner, Walter Kittredge. In John's case, we have a few details. He sang to an estimated crowd of
John (top), Henry, and Viola
The vocal company led by John was very successful for some time after the war; and they tried to use their drawing power to attract supporters in the Kansas woman's suffrage campaign of 1867. Not long after that, John's daughter, Viola Gertrude Hutchinson (1847-1935), got married and retired from concert tours, in favor of raising a family of her own. Around this time, John added "The People's Advent" to his repertoire. Based on a poem by Gerald Massey, it would be his biggest song in the years to come.
In 1870, John's company made a high-profile, if not particularly successful tour of the Reconstruction-era South. Then came what biographer Philip D. Jordan called the "lean years." This was the period of what was then called the "Great Depression," the longest business contraction in American history. As John's band of singers had fewer concert engagements, he shifted their emphasis to doing work on behalf of favorite causes, especially temperance.
Judson Whittier Hutchinson (1862-1898) was the youngest of John's three children. His health was always frail; and much of the time Fanny stayed home to take care of him and, not incidentally, to manage the family property on High Rock. Thus, the voice of their oldest son, Henry J. Hutchinson (1844-1884), was very important in the career of John's troupe. Henry was a gallant character, and many complimentary and sometimes colorful words can be used to describe him - it's just that dependable is not among them. He would periodically become restless and dissatisfied; and at various times, he would quit singing and become an entrepreneur or perform either skilled or unskilled labor. At one time he left to sing with a group of musicians led by Camilla Urso.
In 1877, Lillie Caroline Phillips (1853-1929) made her debut as a member of the Hutchinson Family. Once Henry met Lillie, he was easily lured back into singing for his father.
Lillie [said John] was versed in the more modern methods of concert singing. Henry had had an experience which gave him command of more heavy solos, as well as of the simpler songs of humanity which he had always sung with Fanny and myself. We sought to retain the old favorites in our programmes, while giving a representation also to the best modern concert selections. The combination seemed to take our audiences by storm.
Lillie, Henry, Fanny, and John
The momentum, thus created, carried John's rejuvenated company through a wonderful concert tour of the West Coast during the 1878-1879 season. His voice seems to have gotten better and better over the years, and he and his band received excellent notices from Western newspapers. John never would have imagined that this might be the last large-scale trip by a Hutchinson Family band. Yet his responsibilities to his High Rock property, along with the declining health of his wife and their son Henry, conspired to keep John close to home most of the time for a number of years. At a point later in his life, when he was performing all too seldom, he wrote, "If I followed my inclination, I should be today actively before the public, for I had far rather die in the harness carrying on the work of reform by my songs than meet what the future has in any other way."
One of John's most important achievements of the 1890s was his marvelous book, Story of the Hutchinsons.* Only Sister Abby's husband, Ludlow Patton - who kept a magnificent scrapbook, was his equal as a Hutchinson family historian.
John continued singing at meetings and giving paid entertainments here and there. In 1902, he started on a short concert tour with his granddaughter, Kate Campbell. Fanny had died years before; and in 1905, John married Agnes Everest (1852?-1934). In the fall, along with John's grandson, Richard D. Hutchinson, they gave the last Hutchinson Family concert for which we have a program and a published review. This trio sang together often enough that it seems fair to say that John was leading a concert company once again.
In 1906, John retired from the music business. He gave his last known public performance in the summer of 1907 at Lynn, Massachusetts. On Thursday morning, October 29, 1908, John W. Hutchinson died at home of accidental gas inhalation.
-- Alan Lewis, revised November 5, 2002
In the fall of 2004, The Revels, an acclaimed Boston musical and theatrical organization (best known for its annual Christmas Revels), started giving public performances of its latest and quite wonderful production, There's a Meeting Here Tonight!, which is based on the lives and careers of the Hutchinson Family singers. Follow this link for a review of the second-ever public staging of There's a Meeting Here Tonight! which took place right here in Brattleboro, Vermont:www.oocities.org/unclesamsfarm/revels.htm
Alan Lewis, November 5, 2002
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