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James Abbington on Planning Henry “Hank” Aaron’s Funeral Music

Although news coverage of public figures’ funerals often focuses most on speakers and eulogists, music is crucial. James Abbington thought pastorally while planning music for baseball star Henry Aaron’s homegoing.

James Abbington teaches church music and worship at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Abbington is a scholar, organist, choral conductor, clinician, and executive editor of GIA Publications’ African American Church Music Series. He also serves on the Vital Grants Worship Advisory Board of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this edited conversation, Abbington discusses the pastoral aspects of choosing and playing music for the funeral of baseball star Henry “Hank” Aaron, who died on January 22, 2021.

How did you come to play the piano and organ for Henry Aaron’s homegoing on January 27, 2021, at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia?

I am director of music ministries and church organist at Friendship Baptist, Atlanta’s first autonomous Black Baptist congregation, established in 1862. Henry Aaron became a member after he married Billye Suber Williams. Her first husband, Samuel Woodrow Wilson, was the pastor of Friendship Baptist till his death in 1970. Mrs. Aaron absolutely loves singing and music and is a great supporter of the music ministries and our staff singers. She used to sing in the choir, and Mr. Aaron served as a church trustee for a while. They have been very generous supporters of all things Friendship and made a substantial gift to expand the Casavant pipe organ. It had been installed in 1969 and had been the pride and joy of Reverend Sam Williams during his pastorate.

Who planned the music for the funeral?

After consulting with Mrs. Aaron for specific requests, I planned the music along with Henrietta Antonin, a longtime Aaron family friend and fifth-generation member of Friendship Baptist. Henrietta helped from beginning to end to navigate funeral planning.

What limitations did COVID-19 impose on your freedom to plan homegoing music?  

Safety was of utmost concern for Mrs. Aaron. More than 100 people wanted to speak and participate in some way, but the guest list was strictly limited to fifty people, and some of the speakers did so virtually. Everyone invited had to come early and get a rapid COVID test before they were certified to enter the church. We were all masked, and since we couldn’t safely do congregational or choral singing, we agreed to use organ music, three soloists, and a virtual choir.

When you’ve been an instrumentalist for as many funerals as I have, you think you know what to expect. I’ve played at other celebrity funerals, but I had no idea what it would be like to play while wearing a hot robe with suit pants, shirt, and tie, double masked, with my glasses steaming up. I didn’t expect to play a prelude in an empty sanctuary with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and President Bill Clinton seated right behind me. All the lights [for broadcasting and streaming the funeral service] were aimed up front. I felt like a Boston Market chicken in a rotisserie.

What were you thinking about, pastorally, as you chose music?

I tried to choose songs that I knew Mr. Aaron had enjoyed. Our opening hymn was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is meaningful for the Aarons and often referred to as the Black national anthem. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t sing it together. But I’d heard a fantastic video of Roland Carter’s arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” created for a 2020 Juneteenth celebration. Opera singer Nicole Heaston had gathered 65 Black opera singers for that virtual performance, which Damien Sneed conducted. I met Mr. Sneed when I played for the funeral of opera singer Jessye Norman, and he graciously gave us permission to use the video.

Much of the service was a series of spoken tributes, either in person or virtual, followed by a musical tribute. After two of Mr. Aaron’s grandchildren read Scripture and another shared quotes about his legacy, we selected the spiritual “Give Me Jesus,” arranged by Hall Johnson and one of Mrs. Aaron’s favorites. It was sung by Jeanné Brown. She is an adopted niece of the Aarons and is often a guest soloist at Friendship Baptist.

The next three speakers talked about Mr. Aaron’s legacy in baseball, business, and philanthropy. “If I Can Help Somebody,” written by the Black woman pianist, songwriter, and lyricist Alma Bazel Androzzo, encapsulated Mr. Aaron’s life, work, and philanthropy. We asked Timothy Miller to be the soloist. He is an assistant professor of voice and music at Morehouse College and is the Atlanta Braves’ official singer.

The next five reflections included Quiana Lewis, one of hundreds of scholarship recipients through the Aarons’ Chasing the Dream Foundation. She talked about the Aarons’ continued influence in her life and said, “It is one thing to be told anything is possible, but it’s completely different when you’re shown.” We followed that with “The Impossible Dream,” composed by Mitch Leigh for the 1965 musical Man of La Mancha. I had recommended that Rodrick Dixon sing it at Mr. Aaron’s 85th birthday party, and they were thrilled when we brought Rod back for our church’s annual Christmas at Friendship event.

How did you decide which instrumental pieces to use?

I’ve been close enough to the Aarons to know the hymns and classic repertoire they like. I knew they would want solemn, stately, dignified, and universally recognized music. For the prelude, I chose Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which musically expressed my feelings of grief, loss, and disbelief. It is a powerful and moving piece often played for funerals of dignitaries, royalty, and celebrities. While I rarely play transcriptions for organ, I found a good arrangement by William Strickland that I have frequently used. I couldn’t help but remember my days as a graduate and doctoral student at the University of Michigan, where my mentor and professor, the late Dr. Marilyn Mason, disapproved of organ students playing organ transcriptions of orchestral music.

After I finished playing “Adagio,” the family was not quite prepared to enter, so I played J. S. Bach’s “Come, Sweet Death” as a mood changer before the processional, which was the “Largo” from George F. Handel’s Xerxes.

The night before the service, I received a call asking that I play a short interlude between President Clinton’s remarks and Reverend Guy’s eulogy. I knew that after the final three reflections, ending with President Clinton, I needed to play something reverent and familiar that would set the mood for the insightful eulogy. How I decided to play “He’ll Understand and Say, ‘Well Done’” by Lucie E. Campbell—and the reaction to that—is a story in itself.

And what guided your instrumental choices near the end of the funeral?

Wendell P. Whalum Sr., my mentor and professor at Morehouse College, started a unique homegoing tradition when he was music director and church organist at Friendship Baptist. After the eulogy and before the recessional, he’d improvise a three- to five-minute medley of hymns requested by the family of the deceased or hymns he felt appropriate. So the big question for funerals at Friendship is always which three hymns to put in that transitional moment. It has become one of the most intimate moments at Friendship homegoings.

Mrs. Aaron very specifically asked for “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” These are very different types of hymns. To create a medley, the organist must be sensitive to the textual relationships among each hymn, the keys, tempos, and how to unify them tastefully. I started with “Amazing Grace” in F major, modulated into “Precious Lord” in G major,  modulated to A flat, and finished with “Just a Closer Walk.”

Mrs. Aaron had said she wanted something triumphant yet dignified for the recessional. I chose “When the Saints Go Marching In” because Mr. Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, home of the earliest organized Mardi Gras Carnival celebrations. Mardi Gras in Mobile is as big a deal as in New Orleans, Louisiana, where trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong was born. Armstrong’s recording of “When the Saints” is the most popular version. Literally hours before the funeral, I sketched an improvisation on “When the Saints Go Marching In” to feature the 8’ trumpet en chamade on the Billye and Henry “Hank” Aaron Antiphonal Organ, which they had generously underwritten.

Can you share any general advice about planning funerals?

I require that all of my public worship students at Emory read Thomas G. Long’s book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral—and I mean from cover to cover! Funerals should reflect the person, the Christian faith, and as many of the family’s wishes as possible. Especially at celebrity funerals, everyone wants to give a tribute. But I have learned and believe that things that are eternal in worship don’t have to be everlasting in worship services. If you feel obligated to speak at a funeral, limit yourself to your allotted time so people still have energy to really listen to the eulogy. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

I’ve been at services where the remarks and reflections go on and on and on to the point that people are unable to stay attentive or even present for the eulogist. I so appreciated Rev. Guy’s insightful and inspiring reflections on Mr. Hank’s life, taken from Psalm 1:3, “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season” (KJV). As Mr. Aaron’s former pastor, Rev. Guy knew those words would be memorable and comforting.

LEARN MORE

Check out dozens of GIA Publications books, hymnals, recordings, and more by James Abbington. Many links in the edited conversation above offer fascinating information on past and current Black composers and musicians. Read Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long. Though it doesn’t include the prelude, this may be the best link to watch Henry “Hank” Aaron’s funeral (2:44:00).

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