The Singing School
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Singing School

"Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, now then, everybody,- do, ti, la, sol, fa, mi, re, do. Very, very good, for a beginning. I want you all to watch me closely, watch my hand,-when you hear the tuning fork, try to catch the exact tone. Now then, let us try it again; Miss Jackson,-the organ, please !"

It is the first night of singing school, a green class, half of it can't read a note, learning the scale. Willard J. Davis, singing master, has just organized a school on Matthews Run. Willard J. Davis was well known as a singing instructor. He lived in the east end of Youngsville where he had a good sized apiary. Between honey bees and singing bees he did very well. He understood music thoroughly and made all his pupils toe the mark.

Toward the end of the fifties, the singing school swept Warren County from end to end, it became immensely popular. For twenty years and more it held its own, and was a splendid institution. Everybody, young and old, was interested, everybody went to singing school at one time or another. The school was conducted in winter, when people had time to attend. On Picadilly Hill, Quaker Hill, Hemlock Hill, Dutch Hill, at Triumph, Enterprise, Lander, Russelsburg, Kinzua; on Miles Run, Blue Eye, Jackson's Run, Hickory Creek, Matthews Run and scores of other places, singing schools were held in schools and churches.

The beginning of a singing school in Warren County was the arrival of the singing master, bag and baggage. He looked up a boarding place and settled down for a stay in the community, of at least three weeks. When he had found a boarding place, at the rate of a dollar and a half per week, it being thoroughly understood that all members of the family where he boarded, desiring vocal instruction, should receive it free of charge, the singing master started out in the community to get "signers." When a dozen or so were signed, the price for joining the singing school was one dollar, which included the entire course of two weeks, the school was usually opened, the master knowing by experience that a singing school advertises itself and attracts business.

The singing master brought with him song books, which sold at one dollar each, affording a little extra profit for the professor. There were few pianos in the days of the singing school, an organ was used for accompaniment. Sometimes the professor carried a small organ about with him, so's to be sure of having one. Professor Alton Schultz, well known as a singing master throughout Warren County sixty years ago, carried an organ with him, and a player too, his wife, who was highly skilled on the instrument.

The average time a singing school lasted was two weeks, the pupils got twelve lessons, a whole musical education for one dollar. In many a small community the class numbered fifty or more. Singing school being mostly in cold weather, the crowd came in bobsleds, to the merry jingle of coarse bells, big, deep sled-boxes filled with straw and blankets. Singing school was a real party, a fine chance for young folks to get together and do a little love making. Even quite straight-laced church members were permitted singing school, since it trained them to be servicable members of the choir.

Let us have a look at the school taught by Willard Davis on Matthews Run in the winter of 1865, a long winter, if you remember, with plenty of snow and sleighing that lasted one hundred days. Warren County folk liked long winters with plenty of sleighing, in the sixties, the snow was a great help in getting out the logs, moving the big logs was just about impossible without it. Then when a good, deep snow melted there was sure to be plenty of water for running the rafts out of the creeks, that was another thing. Snow was good for singing schools, too, the folks liked the sleigh ride.

As you approach the schoolhouse soft yellow light from the oil lamps is glowing through the windows onto the white drifts. A fine path has been shoveled down to the road, with snow thrown up five feet high on either side. You jump out of the sled and go into the schoolhouse, the horses are to be driven down the road and stabled on a neighboring farm. The schoolroom is equipped with long benches, the first bench is filled, with quite young folk who have been instructed to come early for special coaching.

Singing Master Davis is explaining the scale, the arrangement of notes. He has his tuning fork in his hand, puts it between his teeth and twangs it, illustrating how it pitches the note. Toward the rear of the room is a huge wood stove. A fire crackles inside, sending out tremendous heat. Now the singing master's instructions to the beginners are frequently broken in on by the hollow stamping of boots, stamping off the snow in the vestibule.

The school has been in progress several days; it is making headway. The "tra--la--la-ing" has been gone through with, the scale is well mastered, the school is going to sing some songs. Books are passed around, they have given us one. Let us have a look at the singing book. It bears the title "Silver Carols," by J. H. Leslie and W. A. Ogden, and further states it is "A Collection of New Music for District Schools, Seminaries, Academies, Colleges, juvenile conventions and the home circle." It is a small, gray book, bound in boards.

Let us discover, by looking for the most thumbed pages, which are the most popular songs. Here we are,-"Merry Farmer's Girl" beginning "A merry farmer's girl am I, And my songs are gay and blithe." And here's another, "A Home On The Mountain." Then, "Beautiful Spring" is certainly a favorite. All the titles are highly sentimental.

"We will try number fifty-four, 'Bird Of The Greenwood'," announces Prof. Davis. "Let all the school sing out."

"Bird of the green-wood oh, why art thou here? Leaves dance not o'er thee, and flowers bloom not near,-"

It is hearty singing, probably it is very good singing. Prof. Davis knows music. Song after song is sung by the entire school. Frequently the Professor halts the singing suddenly with a raised hand, has the school go back to the first line and begin all over again. Singing school keeps late. At eleven o'clock the brilliant stars, making all the countryside glisten and sparkle like a frosted cake, peep down to see the windows in the little schoolhouse on Matthews Run still glowing softly with the lighted lamps. It is midnight before the last girl, hooded and shawled, is bundled into the big sled and the bells go jingling off down the snowy road in the frosty starlight.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 229-232: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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