A True Hero is Hard to Find

Where movements are being born, people are singing in anticipation. Where protests are taking place, people are singing in solidarity. Where prayers are being offered, people are singing in reverent hope. Throughout the history of America, her people have joined in communal songs to tell stories, bind together, and to encounter God. But throughout America’s history it has become clear that a true hero is hard to find. The political and social vision as well as the theology of the following hymns and songs is by no means perfect, but they exemplify strides toward justice and equality through song. This project brings together historical songs and hymns, each representing particular moments in American history between 1846-1927, presented in new recordings in the hope that they might find new life in our current time. 

Our tracklist traces a chronological journey through certain events studied in Dr. Heath Carter’s Social Christianity and American Inequality class at Princeton Theological Seminary in Fall 2019. While far from an exhaustive presentation of the topics covered, the liner notes offer a brief context and notes on the theological and social interpretations offered by the text. The re-presentation of these songs in 2019 allows for some critical reflection and honest appraisals of the work of songwriters and singers during the mid to late 1800s.

Being mindful of our own social location, and taking seriously Du Bois’ observation that “the mass of ‘gospel’ hymns which has swept through American churches and well-nigh ruined our sense of song consists largely of debased imitations of Negro melodies made by ears that caught the jingle but not the music, the body but not the soul, of the Jubilee songs,” we have chosen to focus on songs written and originally presented predominantly by white folk. This serves to hold a candle of hope to the legacy of the white church in America, which too often stood against abolition and equality. Yet, the theological support of abolitionism does exist in America’s musical history, selections of which are present here. 

In the hope of liberty and justice for all, and the pursuit of a true hero, 

     Jenna Reed and Rory Chambers

General Production Notes

Many of the songs have been arranged to suit a folk “jump jazz” trio — Guitar, Bass, Drumset — a portable ensemble that aims to reflect the songs’ popular usage in public streets and halls rather than more formal performance settings.

Our choice to focus on the time period pre-1930 serves several purposes: firstly, original recordings of songs of social protest and the labor movement are well-documented once recording technology became available in the 1920s. Secondly, given the lack of recorded music, it is interesting to consider that songs made it into homes by way of books of sheet music to be played on the home piano or other instruments. Our hope is that we have offered these songs some new life as we’ve drawn them off the page and into listeners’ ears.

Practically, once original manuscripts were found, each song was re-notated digitally then recorded and mixed in Garageband in Rory's living room. All instruments were played or programmed by Rory, with additional vocals by Ellen White, Alisa Unell, Ben Kreider, Ashley Mlacker, and Lena Zwarg.

Navigating the Project

Press play below to listen to the songs as you browse the Liner Notes and the rest of the information presented on this page. Clicking on the music note on the right side of the play bar will open a new page which displays lyrics and a player window. 

Scanned original documents are linked in the liner notes; they can be found either through a hyperlink in the title of the primary document or a link to an external archival site.




The Hutchinson Family Singers

Publisher and Date: Ditson, Boston 1846; Brown, Boston 1849

Location: Boston

Words by: Charles McCay 

Music by: Hutchinson Family, E.L. White arr. 

The shape and sound of the music scene in the United States began to shift in the mid 1800s, and the Hutchinson family was on the brink of this change. The Hutchinson Family Singers, comprised of brothers John, Asa, Judson, and their sister, Abby, transformed themselves from church musicians to some of the most well-known musicians to be found. As Scott Gac notes, the singers not only brought the relatively-new harmonized chorus refrains to popularity, they also created a new kind of “sacred” music by expounding reform in song (Gac, 5). 

The Hutchinson’s song “There’s a Good Time Comin” published in William Wells Brown’s Anti-Slavery Harp in 1849 is based on the poem of the same name by Charles McCay with the addition of an extra stanza for the chorus. The lyrics speak of the hope of a better time to come, the power of ideas, and the hope that the pen will supersede the sword. A kind of eschatological hope colors the scene which is not a passive waiting, but a waiting in which one must still fight. The good time to come is a time in which “religion shall be shorn of pride, and flourish all the stronger;” a time in which peace and equality will be realized. The Hutchinson family’s commitments to reform and abolition comes through obscurely in this song, but it colors the hopeful lyrics with the recognition that their current moment was not the “good time,” but that the good time was to come.

Production Notes:

Feat. Ellen White as Abby Hutchinson

This track was designed to sound like a live performance of the song, with the four singers huddled around one microphone. Each voice has its own timbre and comes from their own place on the stage. The blend of their voices is not especially well-controlled volume-wise, it is simply a family band singing this song to their audience.  


Brown, William Wells, comp. The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. 2d ed. Boston: B. Marsh, 1849.

Cockrell, Dale. Excelsior: Journals of the Hutchinson Family Singers, 1842-1846. Stuyvesant, New York: Pendragon Press, 1989. 

​Hutchinson, Edward L White, and Charles Mackay. "There's a Good Time Coming, Ballad." Oliver Ditson, Boston, monographic, 1846.

     Notated Music.


Gac, Scott. Singing for Freedom : The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Reform. New Haven: Yale University

     Press, 2007.

McClendon, Aaron D. Sounds of Sympathy: William Wells Brown’s Anti-Slavery Harp, Abolition, and the Culture of Early and Antebellum

     American Song. African American Review 47 (1): 83–100. 2014.     

Notes on our Research Method

For the purposes of our project, there was no shortage of resources.  After a day of research in which we realized the unending directions this project could go, we chose to limit ourselves to songs that were related to labor strikes and movements, social change and anti-oppression, and had theological tones, 

We are fortunate to have a rich collection of hymnals and songbooks in the archive at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Louis F. Benson Collection of Hymnals and Hymnology is comprised of "approximately 12,000 volumes on virtually every aspect of hymnology, with the exception of musical scores and anthems." Over 9000 of these songbooks were willed to the Seminary by Dr Benson, and the collection is considered one of the finest resources in North America for students of hymnology.We are grateful for our professor, Dr. Heath Carter, who gave our project kick-start with an initial connection to Mussey's Social Hymns of Brotherhood and Aspiration, part of the Benson collection.


For our research purposes, we were fortunate to be able to sort through the collection by date to find songbooks relevant to the time period we were curious about, as well as to search for publishers in some of the locations that have been prominent throughout the semester. 


While much of the Benson Collection is digitized, there is abundantly more that is not. As is stated in the liner notes, while we were following a lead looking for an original manuscript for the Hutchinson Singers song, we stumbled upon Oppression Shall Not Always Reign, which was a fun serendipitous moment. The two documents share a publisher, which could be a fun rabbit hole to chase for another project. Many of these rabbit holes arose throughout the historical research. Questions like; Who is Miss Lizzie Magie, the dedicatee for Weep Some More, My Lady? Who is Mrs. Ella Lodge (there's a potential lead at Princeton University Library)? What was the nature of Mabel Mussey's involvement at Hull House? There are many more connections to be made and paths to follow. 


There is obviously a whole world of song that could be re-ignited in follow-up projects. Given the well-documented history of the IWW Little Red Songbooks (an anthology edition, The Big Red Songbook, was published in 2007 with a foreword by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine) we decided to focus instead on the theological history of the labor movement as well as to look for songs relating to various strikes that we had studied in class.


We wish we could have found orders of service from churches that we knew were pro-labor to see what they were singing during the times of particular moments (such as the Pullman strike). It would have been amazing to see whether churches were explicitly and specifically tying their worship services to the social movements going on outside their doors and in their pews. We have evidence that the strikes were preached about; we wonder whether particular hymns were utilised to put the words of the movements — either for or against — in the mouths of congregations themselves. 


We finished this project quite inspired by the theological support of the labor movement, even if it was scant. The world seems ready for a return to songs of labor, union, and worker's rights that speak to the theological realities that underpin them.