Community Singings and Square Dances: Muzzled Oxen Part 3

muzzled oxenIf you’ve been reading this column lately you’re familiar with our regular features on the recently published book, Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas. Published by Butler Center Books, a branch of the Central Arkansas Library system, this three hundred fifty page memoir documents the stories of Genevieve Grant Sadler, a woman who traveled from California to Yell County to spend many years working in the cotton farming community outside of Dardanelle. This is part three in the series. You can find all the previous columns online (see web address at the bottom of this piece).

Growing up in Dardanelle I often heard my relatives talk about the singings that were held in the bottoms and other areas near town. Singing schools—events where people came together to learn four part harmony and sightread vocal music—were especially popular among Church of Christ and Primitive Baptist communities. But singings were also social events and sometimes happened outside of church gatherings. In some cases they might even include a piano or record player, providing those in attendance didn’t find the use of instruments sinful. Sadler recalls one such singing at the house of a woman named Mrs. Randall, a tenant farmer who lived nearby. One evening members of the community gathered at her home to sing songs by the fire. “I noticed the notes in the hymn book were the old-fashioned type,” Sadler writes, “diamond shaped or square, and the four-part songs were faithfully and feelingly sung.”

During the singing all the men sat on the front porch or with the women in the crowded front living room, she explains. The beds were piled high with coats, wraps, and sleeping babies, and over in the corner of the tiny living room sat a Silvertone phonograph from Sears Roebuck: “I’ll never forget that new, shiny cabinet in a room where the walls were covered with old, dirty, snuff-spitted paper, the floor bare, and rags stuffed in the holes in the broken window.” Mrs. Randall, writes Sadler, was dressed in a calico house dress, barefooted, with “snuff stains around her mouth.” The use of snuff, many readers will recall, was once common among older women, even as late as the 1990s.

During the fall cotton picking season there were large crowds of pickers on Sadler’s land and, by request, Sadler and her husband decided to hold a square dance on their property. “Two of the older girls came down to my house one noon and asked me if I would invite them to a party at my house,” she writes. “They explained that they meant could we have a dance, but that their folks were against dancing so they would only get to come if it was a party.” About twenty young men and women helped Sadler clear out the living room, take down the bed, and roll the carpet out onto the porch to make room for the dancers, the banjo and guitar players and the fiddlers. “With the heavy pulsing of the deep chords of the guitar,” she writes, “the square dancing began.” To her California ears the calls were hard to decipher and sung in what she called a “peculiar chanting tone with a nasal twang.” After the dance she asked some of the young people to write down the words, which she transcribed in the book. Here’s one short example:

Circle four, shutang

Shutang, shu;

Do si lady, shutang,

Shutang, shu.

Did you attend singings growing up? Go to square dances? Maybe you have a story about the prevalence of snuff from years ago. I’d love to hear about it! The publisher of the book was kind enough to give the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action a copy of the book to pass on to a column reader. I’ve decided to extend the drawing until this series is complete. Send me a message telling me why the book interests you and/or something about your own connections to the history of cotton farming in the area. I’ll put all the names in a hat and draw a winner after all the columns have run! Thanks so much for reading!

Read the previous columns in this series:

Muzzled Oxen Part 1: Culture Shock and Hazel Bushes

Muzzled Oxen Part 2: The Price of Cotton

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspaper in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.