BRYAN COUNTY HISTORY: 50 years of singing classes
The history of Bryan County has long been tied to music, singing, and dancing. It’s nearly impossible to identify a culture or ethnic group represented in our state without also recognizing the significant contribution their music has made to our daily life. Native American tribes, immigrants, freedmen, and homegrown singers have always graced us with their talents and skills. One of the ways they perfected those skills was in a local “singing school”. Many of Oklahoma’s most treasured musicians, including songwriter Albert Brumley, attended singing schools and county conventions. Mr. Brumley, who wrote "I'll Fly Away," along with hundreds of other tunes, grew up attending singing schools and his songbooks were used by singing groups around the state.
In the early days of settlement singers often got together at social events and family gatherings. School and church groups formed, but there were always people who didn’t fit a category or age. So, community “schools” were created, and singing classes lasted from a week to an ongoing activity. In the spring of 1877, the Caddo International News reported that the “singing class at the Saint James hotel last night was well attended. Mr. T. D. Meadows was elected leader.”
In the early 1900s there were singing schools in Bennington, Pirtle, Durant, Sterrett, Silo, Midway, Hatcher, Cade, Matoy, Buffalo, Whitesand, Impson, Lone Oak, Keirsey, Allison, and many other communities. Each thought they were the best and competition was inevitable. The 1906 group at Bokchito led by W. B. Jones was declared by members to be the best ever assembled. The first Bryan County Singing Convention was announced in 1907, with A. E. McCreary as president. Contests were held and “dinner on the ground” was shared by hundreds.
Expenses were always a challenge for singing schools. Groups needed practice books, clean clothes, and travel money to attend conventions. The “box supper” and auctions were favorites, as were small fees for special programs. The Midway class had a box supper in 1912 and Willie Crabtree urged everyone to attend and “help out a worthy cause”.
The 1913 convention was led by H. H. Loden, president and lasted two days- one for business and one for singing. The first weekend of July, 1916 Achille was declared the conventions “most perfect singing class in Bryan County”. Officers for the BCSC were W. H. Yeats, J. H. Conditt, Sam Wright, and C. B. Austin. Miss Kemp, from Roberta, was the organist. Shortly after the convention, the local Socialists group offered to sponsor a singing contest at their encampment with a $75 chapel organ as first prize, but it’s unclear if anyone participated. Many singers, including the Perry Music Club, suspended classes until after the war.
Roy Pickens took twenty-five singers from Bushnell to the 1926 convention. Blue won a silver loving cup and 25 song books at the County Fair in 1926. Their leader was J. B. Laughlin.
They also won the votes and hearts of the judges at the 1929 singing convention in Matoy. Judges were J. S. Melton and Miss Harris, Durant, and LeRoy Gardner of Banty.
In 1957 Bushnell hosted the 50th Anniversary of the Bryan County Singing Group. Young and old singers, former residents, piano players, and old friends gathered for singing, visiting, and remembering. Over 200 people attended. It was determined that J. Sam Wright had been at the first and fiftieth conventions and had probably “taught more people to sing in Bryan County that any man alive”. We’re forever grateful to all of them.
Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.