Faulkner County Singing School: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

One of my fondest memories of attending my grandparents’ little country church was the singing. Anytime I would visit, the song director, Uncle Doyle Havens, and my grandfather, Unis Burnett, would draft me to sing in the choir. No, I had no special talent, it was just expected that the choir loft be filled with any and all who would come.

We sang out of the Heavenly Highway Hymnals which were different from the hymnals we used at First Baptist in Conway. For one thing, the notes were shaped differently. For another thing, the pace of the song would often be different than the way I was used to singing it at our church in Conway.

Occasionally, I would hear or read something about a singing convention in the county and how some of the church members would be attending. I never really got to follow up on that or attend one myself but I was always curious because it sounded like a lot of fun.

I recently became acquainted with Dr. Ben McNew at the Conway Noon Lions Club and he was gracious enough to share with me some of the details about this event. His father, Roland H. McNew, was instrumental in maintaining the singing school, serving as president of the Faulkner County Singing Convention several times. He also helped organize the Arkansas State Singing Convention in 1913.

The Faulkner County Singing Convention is one of the oldest gatherings in Faulkner County. This year’s convention will take place July 21-22 at Eastside Baptist Church, 1735 East Oak Street in Conway.

Faulkner County has had a singing convention for 139 years. The first conventions were held by traveling teachers who usually came to promote a particular songbook such as A.J. Showalter or Stamps-Baxter. After a few years, once hymn books were more readily available in homes, local song leaders organized and conducted singing conventions.

Singing conventions were usually conducted during the summer after the crops had been planted when farm families had more free time. They were open to all ages and were usually held at various schoolhouses/churches in the county. Fees per student ranged from $1 to $5. Sometimes as many as 180 attended the convention which might last from one to three weeks.

The basic teaching tool at the convention was a 5 x 6-foot wall chart with a five-line, four-space staff. Students were taught the eight-note scale; how to identify different types of notes, sharps and flats; and key signatures. They were also taught the tone for each note. During the frequent breaks, the group would sing a good old hymn or gospel favorite.

As the students learned about the meaning of time, they were brought before the group and taught how to direct the group using arm and hand movements. Individual with quality voices were identified and were trained to be soloists or to be part of a duet, trio or quartet.

Eventually singing classes were organized at individual churches. The classes elected officers and met on a regular basis to practice. Once a year, they would elect delegates to attend the county singing convention.
These formally-seated delegates got the privilege of electing officers and selecting the site of next year’s convention. Hosting the convention was a high honor and the competition between prospective sites was highly competitive.

One of the most noted singing school leaders was Dr. Ben McNew’s father, Roland H. McNew. He taught in hundreds of singing schools, not only in Faulkner County but in other surrounding counties and states.

Singing schools taught untold thousands how to read music and how to participate in congregational singing. These singing schools also trained many choir directors and evangelistic singers. This was of great benefit to small country churches who could not afford a full-time music director.

All day singings with “dinner on the grounds” emerged in all the rural communities because of the singing schools. Beginning with the last Sunday in April, each community had a traditional All Day Singing and Homecoming Day.

On these special days, the best song leaders were scheduled to lead one of their favorite songs. The leaders would have a special organist who would always come forward to accompany the singers. This was the highlight of the year for the communities and many memories were made amidst the singing of the old and new songs.

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