Key Figures in Early Popular Music in America
Religion as a Driving Force for Musical Expression
Before the 18th century, the only form of musical teaching accessible to musicians and the rural public was from tune books. Editions such as Cyrus Phillips’s notable work Musical Self Instructor, Containing Five Hundred Questions and Answers Relative to the Science of Music served as a guideline to what music of the time should sound like, and included lyrics and instructions for pieces gathered from numerous parts of the back country. Traveling music teachers such as Phillips would tour from town to town, holding classes for people to learn how to sing. Such books served as a precursor to the popular hymn books that would be used in churches within the next century.
The birth of popular music was rooted entirely in the religious fervor of rural American families. Churches, specifically those of the Baptist and Protestant denominations, used song as the primary method of teaching their doctrines. Music was simply more accessible, enjoyable, and easier to understand, and the more that congregations were able to relate to the teachings of their church, the more widespread their religion became. It was customary for every child in the community to be a part of the church choir and attend Sunday school weekly. Here, the children were taught by “singing masters,” musicians who led the church choir as an extra source of income. These instructors were often performing musicians themselves, but since performers were not popular until the mid-1800s, they relied on other methods of making a living such as composing, writing song books, and offering music lessons (Gac 95-97). The churches often required them to adhere to strict rules on what their pupils could and could not sing, to ensure that faith was always the sole subject of the music. (However, the singing masters slowly began implementing more secular content, with religion still as the major motivation for signing.) Within a few decades, religion permeated all of American culture, as Christianity became part of the “standard curriculum” in American schools (Gac 97). These fundamental religious beliefs became increasingly intertwined with politics on a local, state, and even national scale (Gac 95-98).
This widespread religious revival led to an era known at the Second Great Awakening, which began in the pre-17th century roots of small-town churches and lasted until the 1840s. Its success is largely accredited to “camp meetings” – religious revival meetings that traveled from town to town, gathering communities of people to unite in faith. Revivalist preachers such as Charles Grandison Finney, who was at that time arguably the most influential Protestant preacher in the Midwestern United States, used dramatization and theatrical expression to retell the stories of the bible. These emotionally charged performances resonated with people more than traditional teachings, making Protestantism in the Midwest and Baptism in the South the highest accepted religions (“Evangelicalism” 1). Due to its similarity to a stage performance, camp meetings quickly rose in popularity to become the first form of American mass entertainment (Gac 108). The Second Great Awakening also rejected the basic principles of Calvinism, including predestination, or the idea that one’s eternal fate was previously selected. The Protestant faith, on the other hand, emphasized a personal relationship with God and encouraged all members to achieve salvation. Many preachers including Finney called upon the spiritual powers of nature and science. As a result, the power of the church shifted from clergymen and the upper class into the hands of the common people; people felt they were more capable of making this change and their religious leaders emphasized deeper personal connections to God. American culture embraced humanism and the possibility of social and cultural reform. This extreme shift in ideals ushered in what is known as the Age of Evangelicalism (“Evangelicalism” 1). Traveling revival meetings were the roots of political activism, as music and song books became commercialized across the nation and inspired social reforms such as the temperance movement and later the abolition of slavery. Many families who believed in this power of the individual turned to music to express their beliefs and gather their communities in the hope of bringing about change (Gac 111).
The Hutchinson Family, America’s Most Influential Singing Troupe
Of all the reformers of the Antebellum era, no family utilized the power of music quite like the Hutchinsons. Starting as a humble farming family in the small town of Milford, New Hampshire, the Hutchinsons witnessed the increasing popularity of song within their community and started a family singing group, which ultimately transformed into a nationwide sensation. Scott Gac’s Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-century Culture of Reform offers a detailed history of the family and the cultural influences of the time.
In 1804, Jesse Hutchinson married Mary Polly Leavitt, and the two started their own farm in agrarian Milford. Polly gave birth to their first child, Jesse Jr, in 1802, and would give birth to 29 more children by 1831. The Hutchinsons quickly grew into a massive family that had to work together and rely on each other to keep the family farm running. Polly cared deeply for the well being of her children, but believed it was important to teach them responsibility and live by the traditional values that she was raised on. Jesse Sr. was a stern, often detached father, but he too loved his children immensely; he did all he could to make ends meet, often taking jobs outside of the farm to help with the family debt. In addition to financial concerns, the Hutchinsons endured particularly difficult times after the deaths of three of their children, Jesse, Mary, and Elizabeth, at which point the family helped each other through their grief, bringing the family closer together. The entire family embraced a culture of hard work and unity which eventually translated into their music as well (Gac 72-84).
Although the family was rooted in farming, several of the Hutchinson children were inspired by the growing popularity of music. Milford was a heavily Baptist community at the time, embracing many of the ideals of the Second Great Awakening such as personal responsibility and free will. Unlike other denominations, the Baptist church did not discriminate its members based of wealth and social class, which appealed to many of the rural farmers in the Milford area. Jesse Hutchinson officially joined the Baptist church in 1814, opening up his family to the world of faith and music. As the Hutchinsons became increasingly involved in singing, their faith served as the foundation and inspired political and social activism (Gac 99-102). Most of the children chose to follow in their father’s footsteps and go into farming. Joshua Hutchinson was the first to deviate– he was heavily involved in the Baptist church choir, and was selected to be choir master in 1829. He brought musical worship to the height of its success in Milford. His brother, Mason, opened up his first music school in 1819. Mason went on to start several other schools, including one in Savannah, Georgia. By 1829, Mason had become a well-known music instructor, published his own tuning song book, and opened the Boston Academy of Music (Gac 86-89). The success of Joshua and Mason inspired their younger siblings to learn music as well; their songs maintained a straightforward religious message and had clear enunciation and melody. With these traditional qualities at the forefront, the Hutchinsons slowly began to implement popular culture influences into their music as their fame grew (Gac 90-95).
The family singing group consisted of primarily the dominant, musically talented members of the family: Joshua, Mason, Judson, John, Asa, and Abby. The 1840 presidential election between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison brought music and theatricality to politics, as campaigns began to include singing performances and campaign jingles. Taking an interest in political issues, the Hutchinson family participated in these campaigns locally. The Hutchinsons’ first official concert was November 6, 1840 in the Baptist church meeting house in Milford; their debut was followed by several performances the next year in Lynn, Massachusetts and a short tour of the New Hampshire back country. Although they would eventually become a national sensation, their start was not all too successful; their music, implementing both religious and secular pieces, lacked the originality and organization needed to make them famous. The siblings struggled to make enough money by performing, and the eldest brothers – John, Asa, and Judson– had to take up other jobs while rehearsing. Their music attracted some young, politically active individuals in these small towns, but for the most part the Hutchinsons’ music sounded largely unprofessional. They struggled to differentiate their style from that of the Rainer Family, who was touring in the United States around the beginning of the Hutchinsons’ career. Inspired by the success of the Rainers, the Hutchinsons adopted a “Tyrolean” style of music with heavy blending and harmonizing. The following year, the youngest sister, Abby, joined the singing group. She was able to balance their voice and appearance with her feminine presence. They began to promote more concerts around the greater New Hampshire area, and many people took notice of their increasingly refined sound. Still in debt, they pooled money from any willing friends and family members in the hope of improving their career. Their problem was that they needed a way to differentiate themselves from other singing families such as the Rainers. They soon discovered that singing about social issues and local concerns was the answer to their predicament (Gac 112-140).
By 1842, the American temperance movement was well-established in smaller communities in the northern United States. The Hutchinsons, who were already anti-alcohol, were introduced to the Washington Temperance society by esteemed member John Hawkins. The organization was less harsh than the American Temperance Society, and modeled many ideals of the Milford Baptist community such as personal responsibility, dissolving class divides, and the chance for redemption. The Hutchinson siblings performed at revival-like meetings, showcasing original lyrics such as “All hail! Washintonians” and “King Alcohol” (Gac 140-141).
The Hutchinson family singers reached a turning point in their career upon traveling to New York in late 1842. Their tour in Albany extended longer than originally planned and featured shows in upstate New York and New Hampshire. On, December 30, 1842, the Hutchinsons were featured in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator (originally in his Herald of Freedom) featuring an article that encouraged them to sing about antislavery. This cause not only promoted their music on a larger scale, but gave the Hutchinsons a prime opportunity to elevate their fame. Their first antislavery event was in early 1843, as the people of Milford gathered in support of Thomas Parnell Beach who was imprisoned for antislavery speech
Here they introduced the beginnings of their most popular song “The Old Granite State” (in the University of Arizona collection) which featured original lyrics but had the same melody as another well known song, “The Old Church Yard.” After “The Old Granite State,” the Hutchinsons’ rise to fame was rapid. Publishers began to notice them and invited them to write down their music– they formed relationships with many publishers, the most prominent being the Oliver Ditson Publishing House in Boston, but their exact contract details are unknown. They collaborated with famous musicians such as George Pope Morris and Henry Russell (Gac 148-153). The Hutchinsons became prominent figures in the temperance movement with “King Alcohol” and in the anti-slavery movement with “The Old Granite State”– they always moved the crowd with these and the original compositions “Excelsior” and “Cape Ann.” Their songs’ lyrics reflected important themes of the American Romantic period in art and literature. With the message of the importance of family and religion “Old Granite State” connected them back to their Milford roots and became a source of American pride. (At one point it was even considered as a possible choice for the United States national anthem). By 1844, the Hutchinsons were living a drastically different life from their hard days of toil on the farm. The family visited monuments and concert halls, held shows for famous politicians, and enjoyed vacations and leisure time. They even performed for President John Tyler, who was pro-slavery; surprisingly, he and his company enjoyed the performance. This displayed the power of the Hutchinsons’ music to overcome ideological differences (Gac 155-170).
This became the goal for the Hutchinson family as their work became gradually more political. They witnessed the issues that citizens faced–poverty, slavery, alcohol abuse– as they traveled further South. Strong ideological divides separated even those who opposed slavery but disagreed about how or the extent to which it should be abolished. They hoped to consolidate all abolitionist sentiments, including the American Anti-Slavery Society and Liberty Party, through the lyrics of “The Old Granite State”. The song was somewhat controversial and caused backlash from Whig party activists, but this only brought them to the forefront of musical and reform news. The Hutchinsons continued to inspire the abolitionist reform movement into the late 1840s, using music to bring previously divided people together. They were able to take ideals that a larger audience shared– God, country, and family– to inspire change and unity among smaller rural communities and eventually larger organizations (Gac 176-181). The works of the Hutchinson family served as inspiration for new forms of entertainment such as parlor acts and minstrel shows that would rise to fame nearing the turn of the century.
The Singing Family Sensation and The Rainer Family
While the Hutchinsons may have been the most famous early singing family in United States history, their unique style of music
was first popularized by the Rainer family. The Rainers were the original “Mountain Family,” who sang of their home in the Swiss Alps and had a deep appreciation for nature. They began as modest cattle ranchers in the Zillow Valley of the Tyrol, and their humble beginnings shined through in their simple, unadulterated performances. The Rainer siblings adopted Tyrolese style in their music, using heavy harmonizing, clear enunciation, and folk influences such as yodeling. They were first discovered in 1824, when the emperors of Austria and Russia heard them sing and were amazed at their abilities. That year Maria, Felix, Joseph, Franz, and Anton left their home and toured though Germany to expose their unique sound.
They were able to make key connections with dignitaries in Germany and Austria, and all of their audiences received their Tyrolean style quite well. By the spring of 1827, the Rainers were an international sensation, singing for the nobility of several countries and making a hefty fortune for musicians of their kind. Their pure, natural sound was especially appreciated in London, where they were invited to perform among the Royal Society of Musicians and likewise treated as professionals. The Rainer Family visited the United States in 1839. While the group was not in their prime (and even included some non-family members), they were nonetheless a sensation. The Rainer Family singers remained mostly in the New England and New York area with flourishing popularity.
They inspired the Hutchinson family singers and numerous other family singing groups to adopt a similar singing style and popularize a simple presentation, standing before the stage in a line. While the Rainers did not have any political or social messages in their music like the Hutchinsons did, they inspired many other musicians and left a legacy behind in popular music internationally. After a successful run in the U.S., the female lead Ellena married and had a child, so she left the group and was replaced by another male singer. The group, further known as Lewis Rainer and Company, was still successful for a short time, but eventually other American acts came into view and the Rainer singers left the United States (Nathan 63-79).
The Alleghanians were another notable singing group from the northern U.S., reaching their peak in the late 1840s and exhibiting similarity in presentation and style to the Hutchinsons. The troupe began as the trio of James M. Boulard, Richard Dunning, and William H. Oakley, the leader of the group. Later on, the Alleghanians added in female vocalists Miriam G. Goodenow and Carrie Hiffert to boost their image and sound. They began performing concerts in the spring of 1846, while the Hutchinson family completed their international tour. The Alleghanians never managed to reach the same level of fame as the Hutchinsons, but were still respectably admired around New York. They, too, performed a very simplified style of music with harmonization, clear enunciation, and original lyrics; however, they would sometimes include a pianist for accompaniment. Like the Hutchinson singers, their songs often focused on a story or moral issue, and the group used patriotism as an appeal. William Oakley was known to be an avid supporter of the temperance movement and was often seen performing at reform meetings. The Alleghanians toured around Canada, South America, and the Western United States, especially California, expanding their audience base across a greater distance than the Hutchinsons did (Lewis 1-5).
The Hutchinson Singers and the Alleghanians were significant to early popular music because of their focus on political and social issues in their music. Some performers of the time, on the other hand, believed staying away from these topics would allow their music to appeal to larger fan base (Bruce 14). W.D. Franklin, J.W. Smith, W.R. Frisbe, and C.W. Huntington were such performers who formed a group known as the Continental Vocalists; their music, as reflected in their name, was highly patriotic and did not point out the flaws in American society. They often used the United States flag and patriotic banners as props and backdrops in their performances (Bruce 6-7). Their music was rather diverse in the musical accompaniment it boasted; Franklin sometimes played violin, Watson played the cello, and Smith played the flute. Their repertoire included original songs, sacred religious pieces, ballads, dialogues, and even short comedy-driven pieces in their later career. Over the years, their work evolved to offer a new and different entertainment for their followers (Bruce 12-13).
The group originated in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1853, and each of the members had some previous formal musical experience. Frisbe was a choir director and organist who was well known around his hometown for having natural vocal talent. Smith and Franklin were both child musical prodigies– Franklin in violin and Smith in singing. Huntington was a former music instructor and member of the Boston Teachers Institute. September 1, 1853 marked the beginning of their first tour, and with 177 lucrative concerts, they were a hit from the start. With the help of a resourceful and dedicated manager, they were able to organize another tour for the following year. Unfortunately, Frisbe became ill so the tour was postponed, but he was soon replaced by another singer. Huntington also left the group in 1855 to be a full-time organist, and was replaced as well. The replacement singers, Watson and Hall, did not hinder the group’s success and many critics believed they made the group sound better (Bruce 6-10). The Continental Vocalists sold their music books and copies of their songs at concerts in a fruitful attempt to transfer their name from the stage to the household. They continued touring until the early 1860s, when other job opportunities and family life pulled the members in different directions. Smith and Franklin, two of the original members, toured as a duo in the later part of 1963 before calling an end to the engagement (Bruce 18-20).
Possibly the most well-known singing family known from history today is the von Trapp family, as depicted in the famous film The Sound of Music. The Trapp family singers consisted of the 10 children of Georg von Trapp, who came from Salzburg, Austria. Georg originally hired Maria Auguste Kutschera, who belonged to the Benedictine Abbey convent, to be a teacher and caretaker for his daughter, Maria (Gearin 3-4). She developed a strong relationship with all of his children and eventually married Georg. The two had three children of their own. When worldwide depression hit in the 1930s, Maria began to consider making the family hobby of singing into a profitable career. The Trapp children showed substantial talent in performing European folk songs with unique Baroque and Renaissance qualities. They won a first place prize in the Salzburg music festival in 1936.
Trapp family siblings were offered job positions within the Nazi regime if they were to sing for them, but the family declined as it went against their entire belief system, and they left Austria instead. The family settled in the United States in 1939, opening a singing camp in Vermont and touring around the country until 1955. Eventually, the Trapp children lost interest in the family business and desired to pursue other areas (Gearin 5-6).
While singing families rose in popularity, minstrelsy was also becoming very common among the American public. Early minstrel shows of the late 1820s to 1830s essentially featured a band of performers dressed in blackface, who would play music, act, and dance. The performers often impersonated the speech and mannerisms of African Americans. Minstrels brought to light class conflicts, as well as the struggles faced by African-Americans, sailors, and the working class. It was a boisterous, uninhibited form of entertainment that used a comedic approach to real issues. However, over time minstrels became more vulgar and racially demeaning. One of the singers who revolutionized blackface entertainment was George Washington Dixon. He himself began performing in blackface in 1828 and made an appearance in the Bowery and Chatham theaters the following year. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, another early figure in shaping minstrel shows, became known for his most famous song “Jim Crow”. Inspired by Dixon and his upbringing on the streets of the Bowery, “Daddy Rice” toured around the south and mid-Atlantic United States and London performing “Jim Crow” (Lewis 66-67).
By the 1840s-1850s, minstrels consolidated into larger organized groups rather than individual performers. The Christy Minstrels troupe, the largest of its kind, set the standard for minstrel shows. The shows were organized into three parts: the first was a musical act with the entire company followed by intermission, the second was the oleo, a variety of individual routines from members of the troupe, and the third was a one-act comedy or drama. The acting performance always included a plot accompanied with slapstick comedy, set in the city or on a plantation. Such one-act plays were the specialty of Charlie White, a manager and coordinator for early minstrel shows who arranged them and blackface adaptations of Italian Operas (Lewis 68-69).
The Birth of Vaudeville
Minstrels and singing families such as Hutchinson and Rainer remained the primary forms of popular music in America for many decades. But as the turn of the century neared, a new form of popular entertainment captured the hearts of the American people. From at least 1880 and continuing to 1930, vaudeville provided male and female audiences of all ages with a lighthearted form of mass entertainment. Most vaudeville shows consisted of quick successive acts including singers, actors, acrobats, clowns, ballerinas, and even animals. Acts were never too serious and aimed at making people laugh. Diversity was key to popularizing vaudeville; there was something for every member of the audience to enjoy, and each performance lasted for only a short time. An “open door attitude” gave all artists a chance to showcase their talent (Royle 323). Vaudeville circuits were located in both upper-class and lower-class areas of cities. Some shows were targeted toward specific ethnic groups; early shows often portrayed caricatures of Italians, Germans, and African-Americans. For example, Marcus Loew built a circuit of 32 theatres specifically for Jewish immigrants, and charged very low prices to attract larger audiences (Lewis 315-318).
Vaudeville was flashy and exciting, but often not too obscene so as to exclude some from watching. Since, thanks to pioneers such as Tony Pastor, it rather quickly was designed to appeal to a larger audience than the suggestive Burlesque-style shows or beer parlor entertainments, vaudeville was an insanely profitable business. Female singers often featured showy, seductive costumes, and while the majority of vaudeville was family-friendly, there was a racier side. The women in vaudeville who became famous, such as Sophie Tucker and Eva Tanguay, were eccentric in nature and often questioned traditional gender roles. Tucker created a deeply personal experience with her audience with her strong, vibrant personality and uninhibited (for the day) singing, often with sexual innuendo. Tanguay, alleged to have been the highest paid vaudeville performer in history, was the epitome of the vaudeville star; while not exceptionally beautiful or talented, she brought a unique energy to the stage. Her songs such as “I Don’t Care”, “I Want Someone to Go Wild with Me”, and “Go as Far as You Like” defied what a traditional, conventional woman was supposed to be at the time. Her work sparked controversy and celebrity gossip, keeping her at the forefront of vaudeville entertainment news (Lewis 315-319). The term “headliner” made its start in vaudeville, as artists like Tanguay and Tucker were the highlight of the shows in which they performed. Managers needed to advertise their show, but could not mention every single act, so they would make the most popular artists the most prominent names on the bill. The headliners received their own dressing rooms and the best slots for performing in the show (Royle 325).
The roots of vaudeville were in performances dating back to the 1840s– minstrels, quick dramas or comedic acts, and early traveling shows all inspired the foundation of vaudeville shows. The Olympic and Bowery theatres of New York City and other established opera houses became the most popular locations available. Vaudeville was considered more refined than its predecessors, relying less on raucous, slapstick humor. Some of the acts were still considered low comedy, without characterization or plot, while others aimed to trigger a deeper emotional response. After 1881, smoking and drinking was typically prohibited in the theaters (Lewis 315-316). The new “continuous” family-oriented vaudeville show with multiple successive acts was popularized by Benjamin Franklin Keith around 1885. He had owned a dime museum in Boston and extended his realm to a vast circuit of theaters, becoming the most powerful figure in American vaudeville for its entire existence. Keith collaborated with Edward F. Albee to create the United Booking Office, which oversaw lower managers at local theaters and booked performers at nearly every show (Lewis 317). Their desire for monopolistic control and maximum personal profits insured that there would be frequent conflict between owner and performer throughout vaudeville’s existence, until the performing form faded away with the advent of radio, talking pictures and later television.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology is proud to own a number of early sheet musics belonging to early popular music groups in America:
THE SAILOR BOY’S CAROL (ADAPTED TO THE ALPINE HORN) 1841 – Words by Thomas Power. Cover shows THE RAINER FAMILY, a quartet of men with a woman playing the guitar in the center of the group. Sheet music touts their celebrated melodies including The Sweetheart, The Tyrolese in America, The Mountain Maid’s Invitation, The Matin (Morning) Bell, The Miller’s Maid and The Free Country. Published in Boston by Oliver Ditson.
THE HANDSOME LOUISE 1841 – Third edition. As sung by THE RAINER FAMILY, which on this music is more simply a quartet of two men and two women, one of whom stands and lays guitar. This is from their group of “Tyrolese Melodies” arranged with symphonies and accompaniments by Friedrich F. Mueller. Published by George P. Reed at 17 Tremont Row in Boston. Songs included in the series were Was It Not At One?, The Alpine Hunters, The Tyrolese War Song, and the waltzes Felix, Margaret, Lisette and Louis.
THE OLD GRANITE STATE 1843 – by The Hutchinson Family. Cover photo of THE HUTCHINSON FAMILY: JUDSON, ABBY, JOHN and ASA. Music is composed, arranged and sung by The Hutchinson Family. Published by Oliver Ditson on Washington Street in Boston, Mass.
ROLL ON SILVER MOON 1848 – by Sloman. Arranged by N. Barker. Cover photo of the quartet THE ALLEGHANIANS. Published by Firth, Pond and Co. at Frankling Square in New York City. Lithograph by Sarony and Major. Features three men and a woman and appears to be a group emulating The Hutchinson Family.
SINGING THRO’ THE FORESTS (RAIL-ROAD CHORUS) 1854 – no composer listed. Cover images of THE CONTINENTAL VOCALISTS, a quartet of singers consisting of J. W. SMITH (also plays recorder), C. W. HUNTINGTON, W. R. FRISBIE (also plays bass), and W. D. FRANKLIN (also plays violin). There is a fifth member J. A. STERRY who is not shown with the quartet but is pictured holding sheet music as if he is a composer for the group. Published by J. E. Gould at 164 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.
Bruce, Phyllis Ruth. “The Career of the Continental Vocalists and the Life of its Co-Founder William Dwight Franklin, A Middletown; Connecticut Resident.” WesScholar Institutional Repositories, Wesleyan University Press, Feb. 1978. Web. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017.
Gac, Scott. Singing for freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the nineteenth-century culture of reform. Yale University Press, 2007.
Gearin, Joan. “Movie vs. Reality: The Real Story of the von Trapp Family.” Prologue Magazine. Winter 2005, vol. 37, no. 4.
Lewis, Allan. Voice and Spirit: The Alleghanians (Vocal Group). Lewis, 2007.
Lewis, Robert M. From Travelling Show to Vaudeville. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Nathan, Hans. “The Tyrolese Family Rainer, and the Vogue of Singing Mountain-Troupes in Europe and America”. The Musical Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1 (1946), pp. 63-79. JSTOR.
“Rise of Evangelicalism.” American Studies at the University of Virginia. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
Royle, Edwin Milton. “The Vaudeville Theatre” Scribner’s Magazine, vol, 26 (1899). pp. 485-495.