This piece was originally published in the October 2013 issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine and was written by Boiled Down Juice editor Meredith Martin-Moats.
Photos of grandchildren and great grandchildren line the walls of Floy Bearden’s home in Dardanelle. A bag of crochet peaks out from under the piano, the platform above the keys lined with even more photos. Among the framed images is a gospel song she wrote in 1979 entitled “God Made the World.” It’s written in shape notes, a form of musical notation begun in the early 1800s and made popular in congregational and community singing. She laughs and says her preschool-aged great grandson keeps the song out so he can play it when he visits. “It was done up by Roland Green,” she adds, the late choral director from Dardanelle.
I first heard about Floy’s music when I was a young girl growing up in the Dardanelle Church of Christ. During the singing I always sat next to my grandmother and her sister, both women who’d grown up in the cotton farming communities outside of town. As young girls they learned how to sing the shape note harmonies in the singing schools popular in the region in the early 1900s. We never used any instruments in church, placing emphasis on the blending of voices. In the front cover of our Sacred Selections for the Church was a copy Floy’s song “God Made the World,” her name in black letters in the top left hand corner. Sometimes the song leader would call out her song and we’d all join in. My grandmother often reminded me we were all related—my great grandfather, Ira Taylor, and Floy’s father, Bryan Taylor, were brothers.
Knowing that I was curious about her music, when I was married in 2003 decades after my grandmother had passed, Floy inserted a copy of that song into a card she gave me, a prized possession I will always cherish. Over the years I discovered Floy had written other songs as well: songs about visiting the Grand Ole Opry, the bittersweet feelings of watching a child get married, and the hilarious antics of grandchildren. Though she’s never had a hit record, she’s a regional treasure.
“I wrote my first song in seventh grade,” she laughs. “A girlfriend and me wrote a song about our teacher.” They let a fellow classmate read the lyrics and she threatened to share it with with the teacher, a thought that terrified young Floy. She’s not sure what happened to that first song but wishes now she wouldn’t have been so hesitant to let others read what she’d written.
In the 7th grade Floy was living in Dardanelle, having recently moved from the cotton farming community of Stringtown, a now non-existent dot on the map between the former communities of Riverside and Cardon Bottoms. A rich flood plain once known for its cotton crop, the area is located near Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge and both the Petit Jean and Arkansas Rivers. In those days, everyone in the so-called bottoms picked cotton.
Before she was old enough to pick her own, her parents pulled her along with them on their sacks. “They had their sack on their shoulder and I’d be sitting on the sack and I’d have to get off while they shook their cotton down, and then I’d get back on and ride,” she recalls. When she was about five or six her mother made her a tow sack of her own, and she picked right along with her relatives.
“I used to take three rows with my daddy when I got up bigger,” she recalled. In going to the field with him, she wanted to prove she could pick just as much as the adults and would boast that together they picked a full three rows. “It took me a while to know what he was doing,” she says smiling. “He’d pick really hard, and I would pick on that middle row and it would make me get behind. And he’d turn around with his sack and help me on that row and then go back to his row,” she laughs. “He never said a word,” she says, or let others know she wasn’t as fast as her him, a tenderness that left a huge impression. Many years later she wrote a loving song to her late father entitled, “Daddy, I Love you.” It’s one she doesn’t share often, though I once had the opportunity to hear a home recording she made of the song years ago before she came down with breathing problems. The voice on the tape was a ringing soprano layered with waves of vibrato.
“Growing up we didn’t listen to a lot of music because we had a battery radio,” she says, recalling her first exposure to country songs. Her father saved the battery, turning it on only for the news and the Grand Ole Opry. She remembers an old record player they once had and their time spent listening to the Chuck Wagon Gang, Jimmy Rogers, and Bill Monroe. “I still think a lot of Jimmy Rogers songs,” she adds, remembering her father. “He would sit in his chair and sing his songs with him and yodel with him.” Years later he ended up selling his records to buy the children shoes for school, she recalled. “I know he hated to do that, but he did.”
Flooding was common in the bottoms in those days, often leaving the pickers with few possessions and no place to go. “We lived in the bend,” she recalled, “and we had to walk about three miles to get to school. It rained for about two weeks once and our radio battery was down, so we couldn’t get any news.” The mail came to the grandfather’s near by, but the water was too high to leave the house. One afternoon when the son came out her brother decided to take the wagon over to their grandfather’s. “He ran into Uncle Ira,” she explains, who told them they had to move out. “They’re expecting the levy to break,” her uncle informed them.
“So we had to get what we could, like bedding and cooking supplies and clothes.” They loaded up the wagon and headed to the nearby school at Riverside where several other families were also waiting out the flood. When the waters receded, they moved back to Stringtown where they had to boil water, wash the mud out of the houses, repaper the walls and try and get life back to normal. Some years later after her father had begun farming in Dardanelle, the river eventually took Stringtown completely, Floy recalls. In the deep, muddy water, people said the roofs of the houses “looked like chicken coops.”
Her time at that small Riverside School was formative, musically and socially. In addition to serving as a refuge during floods, the building was an all-purpose community structure offering school during the week and church services on Sundays. Though the community seldom had a preacher, her grandfather, who’d been a preacher earlier in life, gave the Sunday lesson and her Uncle Ira led the singing. “In those days,” she recalls, “It was songs like the Old Rugged Cross.” Taking a minute to recall some of her favorites she remembers one she doesn’t hear led anymore entitled, “Don’t Let Your Light Burn Low.” Too young to attend to the singing schools that were popular just a few years before she was born, she grew up hearing the harmonies and knowing the power of human singing.
With few toys and even fewer conveniences, life in the bottoms centered around family and neighbors. She recalls living across the street from an African American family during the days of Jim Crow. Though they went to different schools, at the end of the day all the children in the area—black and white—played ball together, and sometimes, she says, all the girls would get together and roll their hair. And everyone, regardless of race, worked together in the cotton fields. “When it was time to move to Dardanelle I cried,” Floy remembers. “It was the only place I had ever known.”
In later years, Floy’s travels led her far from Yell County, influencing her music in new ways. When her husband was in the service in Texas she and a fellow army wife went to visit their husbands at base. While there they wrote a song about the town. “We went down stairs and sang it to our landlord,” she laughs. “She really liked it because it was her hometown,” she chuckles. “Myra Texas,” Floy continued. “Probably not even on the map because it had just a store, and I think a church and a station.”
For years Floy worked at the POM station in Russellville, first filing parts and later making balance wheels for the meters. Working with her hands, she was able to construct songs in her head, often enlisting her fellow co-workers for feedback. One of the songs she wrote at the plant she called, “Rockwell International,” named after the POM plant’s previous owner. “They told me Rockwell made parts for space shuttles,” she recalled, “and so I had to write a song about that.”
While working at the plant she and a fellow coworker traveled to Nashville to tour the city. When they returned a young man they worked with “took to calling me Nashville,” she laughs. “Nashville write a song about me,” he requested. “So I did,” she says smiling. “I wrote the “Grand Ole Opry Blues” and put his name it in.” The tune to the song features a Jimmy Rogers style yodel, the kind her father would sing while sitting in his chair in the evenings.
When asked which song is her favorite she says “Little Angie,” a tale of a younger sister who incessantly follows her big sister around. “One afternoon my son Johnny came over with his daughter, Angie,” she explains. “And she run through the kitchen and as I picked her up I said, “Little Angie.” Johnny said, “Now don’t write a song about her,” she laughs. “Well, of course, that give me the idea,” she adds with a smile. “Little Angie” is one of a handful of songs recorded by Mary and Pat Fulz of northwest Arkansas, relatives of Joe Clark, the singer from Dardanelle. A bluegrass style tune, it tells the story of a little girl who follows her big sister around like a shadow, driving her crazy despite the flattery her adoration brings.
Floy is perhaps best known for the many years she spent as a caregiver, tending to children from all over Dardanelle. Everyone who stayed with her has a story about the ways in which she taught empathy and compassion. “That was the hardest job I ever quit,” she says. “It was nothing for me to have fourteen kids a day,” she continues. “Crying is one thing I did not allow,” she adds. “Now they could start to cry, but we all had to find out what was wrong. If they were hurt we had to all get in there and doctor them,” she laughs as she recalls teaching the older children how to sooth a baby’s tears.
Nearing ninety years old, she’s still working on her music, and speaks of a few songs she’s completing. “Sometimes I’d get up in the middle of the night thinking of something and have to write it down,” she says, explaining her song writing process. Over the years she’s taken her songs to songwriter’s roundtables, receiving positive feedback from the participants. She routinely claims she’s never been a singer, laughing and saying that her singing made her grandchildren cry. “So if that tells you anything,” she laughs.
Though I hate to argue with her, her voice on those tapes proves otherwise. It’s a raw voice, both powerful and tender. And her songs capture stories of everyday life—the importance of family, humanity’s endless curiosity about far away places, and our desire to tell others just how much we love them.
The goal of this piece, and others that will follow, is to explore everyday people in our communities, paying close attention to how we define and redefine our concepts of community leaders, local history, and the importance of hearing one another’s voices. These pieces are written in lose connection with our ongoing work at the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and are written in partnership with ABOUT the River Valley magazine.