Lucie Eddie Campbell: A Mother of Gospel Music
James Abbington was inspired to insert an old gospel song before the eulogy at the funeral for baseball star Henry “Hank” Aaron. The reaction prompted him to honor the heritage of Lucie E. Campbell, an influential Black gospel musician whom many people have forgotten.
James Abbington had planned music for Henry “Hank” Aaron’s funeral down to the last detail. Yet he later realized that the most pastoral music moment for the Aaron family may have been a piece of spontaneous providence.
The legendary homerun hitter for the Atlanta Braves died in his sleep on January 22, 2021, and Aaron’s homegoing was at his church, Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. James Abbington, Friendship’s director of music ministries and church organist, teaches church music and worship at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
Besides an invocation, Scripture, eulogy, music, and benediction, the funeral included a series of reflections followed by a musical tribute. Abbington planned the funeral with long-time Friendship member Henrietta Antonin to balance many pastoral concerns.
At the last minute, he chose to play Lucie E. Campbell’s gospel hymn “He’ll Understand and Say, ‘Well Done.’” The response to that brief instrumental interlude made Abbington want more people to know about the hymn’s author and composer. “It is important to know that Lucie Campbell was a Black woman from Memphis, Tennessee. She was a schoolteacher and a force to be reckoned with in the National Baptist Convention USA,” he says.
A poignant moment
“Mr. Aaron was a modest man who often said he wanted to be buried the day after he died. He didn’t want a fuss,” Abbington says. “Yet so many people wanted to share the impact he’d made through his life, work, and philanthropy. I chose music that meant a lot to the Aarons and that related pastorally to the Scriptures and remembrances that speakers shared.”
The funeral service included many in-person and virtual speakers, most of whom exceeded their allotted time. Former President Bill Clinton was the last speaker before William Vincent Guy, Friendship’s pastor emeritus, delivered the eulogy.
“Rev. Guy is a Morehouse College grad, a very fine pianist, and a former Morehouse professor of religion and philosophy,” Abbington says. “I realized it would be good to have a musical transition before his eulogy, but what should I play? I wrestled the whole time President Clinton was speaking. Then, like a voice from heaven, a small but firm voice whispered to choose “He’ll Understand and Say, ‘Well Done,’” an old gospel hymn by Lucie E. Campbell. It was in the hymnal right beside the organ. I doubted that voice and thought of two other selections. I even thought of just improvising something, but I picked up the hymnal and yielded to that small, firm voice.
"I played it simply, just one verse. Rev. Guy turned to me and gave me a look as if that was just what he needed. And I saw Andrew Young and a few others whip their heads and look at each other. The next day, Henrietta Antonin called and asked, ‘How did you decided to play “He’ll Understand”?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, shoot. What’d I do?’
“It turns out that Mrs. Aaron had called a few close friends to the house before the undertaker came. Lots of people know Andrew Young as a UN ambassador and former Atlanta mayor, but he's also a United Church of Christ minister and a very close and long-time family friend. Before Mr. Aaron was moved from the house, Andy offered a prayer for the few gathered there with Mrs. Aaron and asked Henrietta to sing that song,” Abbington explains. The text of the refrain is: “Oh, when I come to the end of my journey/ Weary of life and the battle is won;/ Carrying the staff and cross of redemption,/ He’ll understand and say, 'Well done.’”
Abbington learned from his phone conversation that those words had been sung in the Aaron home for that private family moment. Those gathered thought that Andrew Young must have shared the story with Abbington prior to the service, “but it was providential,” Abbington says. “I just played the tune unannounced. The people most close to Mr. Aaron at the end of his life recognized it and knew the lyrics.”
He says he received several emails and texts from people who said that hearing that old gospel song brought back memories. One pastor texted from Nashville, Tennessee, immediately following the service and simply wrote: “Thanks for playing the Lucie Campbell, ‘He’ll Understand and Say, “Well Done.”’ Very reflective.” A woman left a voicemail saying, “That song was sung at my mother’s funeral, and I hadn’t heard it since then. I just broke down when I heard it.” Abbington also received an email that read: “Thanks for playing ‘He’ll Understand and Say, “Well Done.”’ That brought back precious memories. What happened to those songs? I grew up with them and need to hear them now more than ever before.”
“A mother of gospel music”
Lucie Eddie Campbell was a singer, songwriter, and pianist who wrote more than 100 hymns, anthems, musicals, and pageants. Her songs spread, but her name faded in some circles.
“Like most, I knew her music before I knew her,” Bernice Johnson Reagon says in a Wade in the Water episode about Campbell. “I grew up with songs like ‘Something Within,’ ‘Jesus Gave Me Water,’ ‘In the Upper Room,’ (and) ‘Just to Behold His Face.’” Reagon is the civil rights leader and music scholar who founded the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. She narrated the 1994 NPR/Smithsonian audio documentary Wade in the Water, a 26-part series about African American sacred music and traditions.
Campbell served for 47 years (1916–1963) as the music director of the National Baptist Convention USA (NBC), the nation’s largest Black denomination. Annual gatherings drew up to 20,000 people, and Campbell wrote and debuted a new song each year. She auditioned singers, chose songs, directed 1,000-voice choirs, and sold copies of her own songs and the hymnals she helped compile. Today, however, searching the NBC website for Lucie Campbell turns up nothing.
Campbell gave national exposure to musicians who went on to become world famous, including Marian Anderson, Robert Bradley, Thomas A. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and Eugene Smallwood.
In Wade in the Water (ep. 14), Smallwood recalls his debut in front of 20,000 NBC faithful in 1939: “[Campbell] called on me to sing shortly after Mahalia Jackson. Now can you imagine . . . having to follow her? I never shall forget Lucie Campbell saying, ‘Son, what are you singing?’ To show you how green I was, I said, ‘“Something Within.”’ Do you know that?’ She said, ‘I think I do, son. What key do you want me to play it in?’” “Something Within” was Campbell’s song, first published twenty years earlier.
Charles Walker, author of Miss Lucie (National Baptist Great Personalities, No. 2), referred to Campbell as the “mother of gospel music.” That same title has also been given to people born after Campbell, such as Sallie Martin and Mahalia Jackson. Walker sang in Campbell’s choirs and became a Baptist minister.
More than a musician
Although Campbell found ways to use her prodigious gifts within her denomination, she made her living teaching American history and English in Memphis, Tennessee. “She was a force to be reckoned with in the National Baptist Convention USA—which was very unusual for a woman,” Abbington says. “That denomination was very patriarchal, yet she ranked as a powerful voice. For her to have that kind of respect and power was notable and highly unusual for Baptists.”
In Wade on the Water, Reagon says, “Campbell often found herself as the only woman member working on church-level policy committees with Black male ministers.” In that same episode, Robert Bradley, one of Campbell's protégés, says, “She was a preacher, but in those times women weren’t allowed to preach. And, of course, if she wanted to keep her job, she couldn’t say that she was a preacher. So she put it in music.”
Abbington’s late godmother, Christine Anderson, lived as an adult in Detroit, Michigan, but grew up in Memphis. “My godmother passed away several years ago but often spoke of Miss Lucie Campbell, her homeroom and history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis,” Abbington recalls. “She said that Miss Lucie was a very strict and staunch Baptist with strong ideas on what was fitting and improper. She did not allow girls to come to her class wearing makeup, jewelry, or indecent clothes.”
Campbell was also an activist. She spoke out about racial inequity in pay and benefits for Black teachers. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame notes that a decade before Rosa Parks’s famous bus incident, Campbell refused to give up her seat in a whites-only section of a streetcar. The only two secular songs she published addressed discrimination against African American armed forces members during and after World War I, according to ethnomusicologist Luvenia George’s chapter in We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, edited by Reagon.
Some sources refer to her as Lucie E. Campbell-Williams because in her 70s she married C. R. Williams, a pastor and lifelong friend with whom she had formed a publishing company.
Songs that crossed barriers
Campbell’s songs spread beyond racial and denominational lines. Two of the most famous are “Something Within,” her first published song (1919), and “He’ll Understand and Say, ‘Well Done’” (1933), her most-published song.
Charles Walker wrote in Miss Lucie that Campbell created “Something Within” because of Memphis musician Conrad “Connie” Rosemond. The blind singer and guitarist busked for money by singing hymns and spirituals along the city’s famous Beale Street. Campbell overhead two men come out of a bar and offer Rosemond a big sum if he’d sing the blues. Rosemond repeatedly demurred, citing “something within.” “Something Within” was the first gospel hymn published by an African American woman, and Campbell invited Rosemond to sing it at the 1919 NBC annual convention.
Her “He’ll understand” (originally titled “He Understands, He’ll Say ‘Well Done’”) touched a chord in listeners. It talks about not being appreciated for or even failing in work that hurts the hands. As church music scholar C. Michael Hawn writes in hi “He Understands” hymn history, “One can imagine how the many African Americans attending the conventions felt when, in the pre-Civil Rights era, they sang this final stanza in their capacities as industrial laborers, sanitation workers, domestic employees, and farmers—professions that scarred and bruised their hands.”
Abbington says that “He Understands” has been recorded by Black and white artists, including Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Marvin Winans, and others. White country quartets sing it, sometimes from the Church of Christ hymnal Church Gospel Songs & Hymns (V. E. Howard Publishing, 1983), which lists the hymnwriter as “Unknown” and the tune as Southern Melody, arranged by Jack Taylor. “It seems irresponsible and lacking due diligence not to have researched and accurately attributed Miss Campbell as the composer, even though it’s in the public domain now,” Abbington says.
Hawn writes, “Occasionally, it is regrettable that credit has not been given to Campbell in recordings and publications, perhaps because she self-published many of her songs and the hymns were conveyed via oral/aural practice. On the other hand, this may indicate that the song has become so identified with the African American faith experience that it takes on the quality of a traditional folksong.”
Of the many “He’ll Understand” recordings on YouTube, Abbington says that this version by the late G. E. Patterson, a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) bishop, “is most like what people at Mr. Aaron’s funeral would have known. Patterson was from Memphis and would have known Lucie Campbell. Often a soloist would sing the verse, and the congregation would join in on the chorus. In the Patterson version, they kind of tack on several repeats of ‘He’ll say, “Well Done,”’ which is very indicative of a COGIC style.”
“Something Within” and “He Understands” are in three hymnals that Abbington edited or helped edit for GIA Publications: African American Heritage Hymnal; One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism; and Lead Me, Guide Me, 2nd edition, a hymnal for African American Catholics.
James Abbington is executive editor of GIA Publications’ African American Church Music Series. For more background on where gospel music fits within the many streams of African American church music, read Abbington’s two-volume series Readings in African American Church Music and Worship (Vol. 1, GIA, 2009; Vol. 2, GIA, 2015).
Read the books Miss Lucie (National Baptist Great Personalities, No. 2) by Charles Walker and We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon, especially the chapters by Horace Boyer, Luvenia A. George, and Charles Walker. Also check out this thesis by Pamela Palmer.
Listen to Wade in the Water, a 26-part series on African American sacred music and traditions produced by National Public Radio and the Smithsonian Institution. It first aired in 1994 and aired again in 2019. Episode 14 is devoted to the story of Lucie Eddie Campbell.
Listen to Campbell’s songs on YouTube or stream the 1965 Stars of Faith album In the Upper Room (Apple Music) and African American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers, Volume 3 (Amazon Prime).
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute this story at your staff, board, or education, music, or worship committee meeting. These questions will help people start a conversation about worship music that endures:
- Share any experience you have of Lucie E. Campbell or other gospel music pioneers.
- Historically, who have been the most influential musicians and composers in your worship context?
- Which songs do you think you’ll remember as you near the end of life? How might other generations in your congregation answer this question?