Sunday, March 22, 2009


I was lost in some history of the Panic of 1837 and Martin Van Buren's presidency, and stumbled by accident on the first instance of Deadhead-level groupie behavior in the U.S. - the rabid followers of the Hutchinson Family Singers, four-part harmony (accompanied and a capella) specialists who toured the U.S. in the 1840s. Their excitable political base came from their slow transition to an abolitionist radical protest music group, but their fan base seems to have been deeper than that, as a few slaveowners and hangers-on seemed to be Hutchie-heads.

Their popularity extended to the Civil War, when they set John Greenleaf Whittier's poem 'We Wait Beneath the Furnace Blast' to music, and played it before the Union Army in 1862. But the real heyday appeared to be in the mid- to late 1840s, when Hutchies played a foil to the James Knox Polk "manifest destiny" fanatics by chanting against war with Mexico and slavery compromises. According to David S. Reynolds in his excellent new book Waking Giant, Hutchies included such luminaries as Walt Whitman, Horace Greeley, and Frederick Douglass. Reynolds said that when the Hutchinsons broke into their big hit, 'Get Off the Track!', concert halls would shake with the power of an earthquake. All of this before amplification, mind you. (Scott Gac includes some of the sheet music to their most popular songs in his book, Singing for Freedom.)

As Pete Seeger turns 90 with a huge celebration at Madison Square Garden, we should remember that neither political protest music nor city-to-city groupie followings are anything new. We have all been here before.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

That is frickin' AWESOME - and hilarious!