Subscribe to Christianity Today
Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Reform
Yale University Press, 2007
328 pp., $65.00
by Paul Harvey
Prior to reading this book, why did I know nothing, basically, about the Hutchinson family? And, dear reader, why (in all likelihood) don't you? I'm a historian of social movements, including the anti-slavery movement; I study and love American musical history; and just about anything that involves the history of religion, race, and reform or civil rights will draw my attention. The Hutchinsons provide the perfect vehicle to weave together all those stories. Somehow, though, their history had escaped my attention.
Let us be thankful, then, that it caught Scott Gac's eye. A double bassist as well as a historian (so the book jacket tells us), Gac sheds fresh light on the well-worn topics of the culture and politics of the anti-slavery movement—and utopian reform sentiment more generally—in antebellum America. He details the history of an antebellum northern Baptist family who "sang for freedom" in the anti-slavery movement of the 1840s, gaining some wealth and fame in the process. Like all good modern musical groups, they stirred listeners, counted their box-office take, slept around, quarreled, broke up, ventured on some ill-advised solo engagements (at one of which Lincoln slumbered), and then staged too many nostalgic reunion tours. Whatever their foibles and internal conflicts—of which there were certainly many—they played their modest part in emotionally invigorating the most important social reform movement of American history; and beyond that, they were about as close to being true racial egalitarians as it was possible to be in the antebellum era. They refused to play segregated halls, and their message was radical enough that they were never able to sing south of Baltimore. (Even Philadelphia proved dicey.)
I learned something on nearly every page of this book, no small praise given the familiarity of the larger topics Gac explores as he follows the saga of the large and extended Hutchinson family. The older brothers stayed at home on the ...