Photo by Caitlin Abrams
"We’re fooling ourselves if we think that social protest from a musical perspective began with Bob Dylan,” says Jordan Sramek, artistic director of St. Paul–based chorale group The Rose Ensemble. For Sramek, American music with a social conscience appeared as early as 150 years ago with the Hutchinson Family Singers. The youngest four of the 16 siblings (three of which also founded the city of Hutchinson) toured the United States during the Civil War singing songs espousing abolitionist ideology alongside the likes of Frederick Douglass. Now, in their latest show, Singing for Freedom, The Rose Ensemble brings the story to life and salutes the Hutchinson Family Singers’s contributions to ending slavery. “[That’s] what the Rose is all about—bringing to light things we feel worthy of being heard.”
April 29–30, May 2–3. Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul, 651-259-3000, minnesotahistorycenter.org
Below, excerpts with an interview with the artistic director of the Rose Ensemble, Jordan Sramek, on the remarkable Hutchinsons and a progressive little city in Minnesota.
Erin Kincheloe: So, why tackle the Hutchinson family this year? Have you kind of been mulling over them for a while?
Jordan Sramek: Ah, I think as an idea, maybe, but I might have to say that during the course of the research I’ve done over the years that I’ve learned more and more and more about this incredible family. I think the hardest part for us in this case is that the Hutchinson family as singers, is really the vehicle for their anti-slavery activities. I mean, they were a national phenomenon, no question. They were really America’s first social protest singers. It was right at the time when train travel allowed people to gain access to vast amounts of geography when otherwise everything would have been fairly isolated. They were traveling superstars. They also had a political agenda: Anti-slavery, women’s rights, women’s right to vote, and certainly temperance, all of which were progressive causes for the time. It’s just such an incredible story that I wish we could tell all of. But we really do have to focus on anti-slavery and abolition [for this program].
EK: So why haven't we heard of them before?
JS: Okay, great question! It’s so true. I think a lot of the time it’s because we as a modern society, when we look back at Civil War era, let alone Civil War activities, it has the word “War” in it, which immediately draws attention to the more gory, gruesome, stark aspects of it. I’m certainly not discounting that. What I’m saying is that we’re fooling ourselves if we think that social protest from a musical perspective began with Bob Dylan. I think that’s the reason why it’s interesting.
Now to answer your question, why haven’t we heard of them before? [sighs] That’s a tough one. I don’t want to sound like that guy, but I think nine times out of ten you ask a Rose Ensemble audience after they see our show, and they’ll say, “Wow, I didn’t know that. I should’ve known that!” And that’s the reason why I love this program. It really does do what the Rose is all about, and that is bringing to light things that we feel worthy of being heard.
EK: And they founded the city of Hutchinson, Minnesota! What effect did the family have locally?
JS: What I think is notable that they did in Minnesota, aside from just settling and setting down roots, is that they were very particular about the design of the city ordinances and the city rules. Minnesota really wasn’t a state here, we have to remember, so they did some really clever things: They basically gave rights to women to the degree they could.