Music of a small town

Curtis Varnell, PhD.
Albert Brumley made a career of sharing the gospel through music.

Not being particularly musical, and to my family that is an understatement, I would read through the hymnal while the rest of my family sang. A reoccurring theme in those hymnals were that they were produced by the Hartford Music Co. and that my favorite songs were written by a man named Albert Brumley. Years passed before I discovered both were a part of our River Valley heritage.

Hartford Music Co. originated in the small Arkansas town of the same name. Eugene Bartlett, a native of Missouri, wanted to establish a school were people learned to read and sing music. He also wanted to write and print gospel songs with a message. To him, Hartford, with its location on the Rock Island rail system and the home of songwriters Will Ramsey and David Moore, offered the perfect location. Beginning in 1918, the company began producing and shipping hymns from the small town. By 1931, the company was printing 100,000 books a year and establishing branch offices throughout the country. Trains rolled in carrying paper and rolled out carrying thousands of church books. More than 80,000 pounds of paper was shipped in each year to make the hymnals, making it one of the largest gospel printing companies in the world.

The company also hired instructors to teach voice, piano, harmony and stringed instruments. Instructors were sent out to surrounding areas where they would hold county singing conventions to teach music to church groups. These were held yearly at different towns in the River Valley and continued occurring up until at least the mid-'70s. They also taught gifted writers and singers on site, hosting a small school in Hartford.

In the 1920s, a penniless young man with big dreams showed up in Hartford wearing a $15 suit and with $2.50 in his pocket. Brumley had left the cotton fields of Spiro, determined to make a career of sharing the gospel through music. Many of his songs are still sung in churches today. In 1929, he wrote and produced the song "I’ll Fly Away." It became the number one recorded song in history and the second most known gospel song in history after "Amazing Grace." I still love hearing and trying to sing it. Some of his other well-known songs were "I’ll Meet You in the Morning" and '"Turn Your Radio On." The gospel songbooks are full of songs he wrote and with songs from the Hartford Music Co.

A journey through the small town today shows little of the bustling coal-mining town of the '20s. Many of the stores are closed and the school is no longer open, but a sign at the edge of town alerts you that it was once the gospel capitol of the South.

Our church choir seemed to locate you on stage according to ability. The stage held three rows of pews extending from the podium to the baptistery. Seemingly, those with the most ability were on row one and others were placed in rows according to the quality of their voice. I realized singing might not be my forte when I found myself knee-deep in water in the baptistery. That never prevented me from enjoying the beautiful old gospel hymns and the best are from our forgotten legacy: the music of Hartford Music Co.