Singing Schools and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music

From the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Image by Mike Keckhaver.

From the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Image by Mike Keckhaver.

Last week’s column highlighted just a few of the entries from the recently released Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music. Published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the book draws from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture’s online collection of entries about the past and present of Arkansas music. As editor Ali Wekly writes in the introduction, the book “gives weight,” to what was before solely an online entity.

Last week this column featured information about some of the lesser-known Arkansas musicians in the classical, blues, folk, and country genres. Gospel music has been prevalent in the state for decades in both white and black communities and it remains so today. The Brockwell Gospel Music School was founded in 1947, an outgrowth of the Izard County Singing Convention that dates back to 1910. The singing school tradition itself can be traced to the Second Great Awakening, the 19th century movement that gave birth to many of the evangelical and protestant religious groups we know today.

Singing was a large part of the religious experience, and the Awakening gave birth to the traveling singing “masters,” who traveled around the south teaching basic singing and music skills and gospel harmony. Over the decades the four-part harmony style became a hallmark of that form of singing, with publishing companies popping up around the country. One of the founders of the Brockwell School, Orgel Mason, worked for the famous Stamps-Baster Music Company based in Dallas, Texas before coming to Arkansas to start the school. The school continues to offer instruction in “sight reading, conducting, and composition, as well as in singing by ear and shape note singing,” writes author David Stricklin.

The Sundown to Sunup Gospel Sing in Springdale was founded in 1969 by Albert Edward Brumley of Missouri, the author of well known songs such as “If We Never Meet Again,” “Turn Your Radio On,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Rank Strangers to Me.” By 1993 the event had expanded to a three-day affair and the Saturday sessions lasted all night long. By the 1990s the event attracted over 30,000 people. In 2002 the event was moved to the University of Arkansas, but in 2006 it relocated to Lebanon, Missouri where it took the name the Albert E. Brumley Memorial Gospel Sing.

Did you grow up taking part in any of the singing schools or gospel singing events in this area or other parts of the state? I’d love to hear about it.  You can order the book through the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at And don’t forget about the book release party scheduled for Thursday September 19th at 5:30 pm at the Butler Center in downtown Little Rock. The event will include a raffle for a hand-made cigar box guitar and a locally made didgeridoo. Everyone is invited to attend. Click on the facebook event link here.