TRI-LAKES AREA Saturday and Sunday were the busiest days of the year in the town of Tull as scores of former residents joined with family and friends for the 126th annual Old Folks’ Singing.
The two-day event celebrates the heritage and traditions of the community and functions as a reunion as former residents from across the country make a pilgrimage to Ebenezer United Methodist Church in the Grant County community of less than 400.
“It doesn’t matter where you are; if you are from Tull, you had to come back for the Old Folks’ Singing,” said Nathania Sawyer, a Tull native who now lives outside the community and a member of the Old Folks’ Singing Planning Committee that organizes the event. “If you are not here, you had better have a good reason.”
On Sunday, the church was filled as more than 250 people gathered for the traditional event. Each year, the special day begins with a welcome from Richard Tull, 77, president of the committee, followed by a welcoming address from a resident and a response from someone who no longer lives in the community.
Tull said he has attended the event almost every year of his life, except for his time in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and for a few years when he moved away when he was first married.
Wilson DuVall, vice president of the singing organization, said that for the residents of Tull, the event is part of life.
“If you grew up in this community, you grew up with this tradition,” said DuVall, a descendent of one of the founders of the singing. “It is like going to bed at night. It is just something you do here.”
When the singing starts, it is from the Christian Harmony hymnal, a book that includes church songs from the 19th century and even older. That is Tull’s favorite part of the event.
“The old songs bring people together, Tull said during the 125th anniversary of the singing in 2010. “My son says we need to tune up on them, or soon no one will know them.”
Then comes lunch — a potluck “dinner on the ground.”
Families have their traditional spots, and some of the ladies of the church have become famous for a dish that tradition demands they bring every year.
After lunch, the afternoon session always begins with a memorial service for those who have died since the last Old Folks’ Singing. Then the music returns, this time from the Cokesbury hymnal, which is still used by the church.
To prepare for the Sunday-morning singing of old sounds in “shape-note” notation, a singing school is held for four hours at the Saline Missionary Baptist Church in Tull, down the road but within sight of the Methodist church.
The hymnal that is used in the morning dates from 1866 and introduced a form of shape notes using seven shapes, one for each interval of the scale. Even during the time when shape-note singing was most popular, the system developed by William Walker was rare.
David Brittan, a nationally known music director and expert on shape-note singing, who lives in Harrison, returned Saturday to conduct the singing school for the second time.
“Few people read shape notes anymore, so I help people prepare for the singing tomorrow,” he said on Saturday. “It is good the people here return to the tradition.”
Brittan said the shape notes were designed to be sung without musical accompaniment, but the church has the tradition of singing with a piano.
“I help them keep to their own tradition,” he said.
Next door to the Baptist church, at the Tull Community Center, the reunion organizers held the event’s annual Cake Walk with homemade pies, cakes and other treats available. Barbecue was served at the gathering. After several hours of visiting, a variety show featuring music, comedy and the Miss Tull contest was held.
The Old Folks’ Singing began on May 17, 1885. The original Ebenezer Church was destroyed by fire. The story goes that the entire community came together to build another church for the Methodists.
At the dedication of the new church house, the entire community was invited. There was a midday dinner and singing from the Christian Harmony songbook. The dedication was such a success in bringing the entire community together, a singing was held again the next year, and a tradition that defined the small town began.
Sawyer, who is associate head of the Butler Center of Arkansas Studies and project manager of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture at the Arkansas Studies Institute in Little Rock, produced a book last year to commemorate the 125 years of the singing.