The following report is Beth Thurman’s account of Sunday’s meeting of the Drew County Gospel Singing Group where the Drew County Historical Society gave a report on the history of Drew County singing schools.
On Sunday, March 11, at 1:30, the Drew County Gospel Singing Group met for their monthly singing at the Green Hill Methodist Church. Members of the Drew County Historical Society were their invited guests. Approximately forty people were in attendance. Gay Pace opened the singing by welcoming the historical society, and then led the first group song. Various people from the audience were called upon to lead a variety of songs from three different hymnals. One of the books was co-authored by State Sen. Jimmy Jeffress and his cousin, Marty Philips. About half way through the hour, Rev. Hardy Peacock was requested to sing a solo, which pianist, Joyce Peavey, had selected, and he graciously accepted. He sang His Eyes Were on the Sparrow to a receptive audience. At the end of the hour, Connie Mullis welcomed the Society and thanked the Green Hill group for inviting everyone to participate in their monthly singing. Beth Thurman then introduced Homer Pace, the key speaker for the afternoon.
Thurman told the group that the Pace family had been singers since the late 1800s when Pace’s father had lived in the Paradise Community, and the tradition was still being honored with the present generation. Four generations of the Pace family were present. Homer Pace began his presentation by explaining that his participation in gospel music dated back to his grandmother Pace, who had brought her knowledge of gospel music and shaped-note singing with her from Mississippi. Pace said his father had no choice but to learn music because his grandmother made sure that each of her six children learned. His father, Lonnie Pace, was one of those children, and Pace stated that when he married and had nine children, they were not given any choice except to learn the rudiments of gospel singing. Pace laughed and explained that when he married, he had five children, and all except one son learned to sing shaped notes. Later in the program, one of the twins, May Hobbs or Fay Wiggam, (I never learned to tell them apart) a sister to Pace, stated that each day when her dad came in from the field, he would have them gather around and sing two songs before they went back to work. They informed the group that their father began teaching gospel singing when he was about nineteen years old. One of his first singing groups to teach was in the Center Point Community, south of Cominto, which would have been between 1900 and 1905.
Pace stated that the beginning of Drew County Singings went back to 1886, and he brought several documents with him, which showed the early days of singings in Drew County. One was a Constitution signed by W. N. Morris, Allen Royal, and H. L. Veazey, that was dated 1912. The organizational meeting was held in the Green Hill Methodist Church. Another set of documents, which Pace brought, were minute books from previous Drew County Singing Conventions: Selma, 1915; Union Ridge, 1916; and Prairie Hall, 1919. Pace further stated that the Drew County group went to Hope, AR, in 1913 and were involved in the organization of the Arkansas State Gospel Singing Convention. The Green Hill Community was very involved in the organization of the county and state singing conventions.
Following Pace’s background on the early Drew County singings, Gay Pace Young stated that three of the early songbook companies were Vaughn, Stamps, and Baxter. Each year a new book is published so that there are always new songs available to learn. Young stated that even though the style of singing is fading in many areas, the South still has active singing conventions and schools. In fact, she stated that Marty Phillips leads a singing school in Ashley County each summer, and there is a group of young people from Green Hill who plan to attend this year.
Audience participation was encouraged, and according to some, shaped notes and the Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do-style of singing started in Italy, possibly a thousand or more years ago, but it is mostly still being used in the South. According to Young, a Southerner who had moved to Ohio and later returned to the South told that in Ohio, shaped-note singing was referred to as folk art. Young further stated that shaped notes were the opposite of the round that are seen in most music. Since there are seven characters in the “do, re, mi” method, there are seven shapes of notes. Three shapes are the triangle, square, and cup. The note “Do” depends on whatever key the music is written. If the key is B flat, then B flat is Do. Young called shaped note singing a trick or benefit to be used as a road map to singing. No matter what the song, there is a tonic chord that always begins with the do sound. Another audience member told that shaped notes were still taught in some high schools and college music classes because it was a useful tool used to teaching singing. Young suggested that one look up some examples of gospel singing schools in Alabama and Georgia on You Tube to see how other places teach shaped notes.
Young is the president of the National Singing Convention, and, in closing, she requested that those in attendance tell others that the National Gospel Singing Convention will be hosted in Drew County at the First Assembly of God Church the third weekend in November this coming fall. They expect that around four hundred people will be coming into the area.