Volume III, No. 1, Fall 1975




I'VE SUNG AT 5000 FUNERALS

by Doris Brelowski

A VISIT WITH ASHFORD HOUGH

I've been singing for over sixty-five years, ever since I was a boy possibly around seventeen or eighteen years old. I had my eighty-fifth birthday last March. That's a long time to sing. I've kept track up to six years ago when I had a stroke and couldn't sing for a while, I've sung at five thousand funerals.

I started singing where we lived out in the country about eighteen miles. We had a cemetery there--Hough Chapel--a church and a cemetery. For miles around they buried there at the cemetery. When I started to singing--there was eight of us youngsters in the family and we all sang--the whole family. When we were just kids, we sang at that cemetery at funerals. They'd have the funeral in the church, then we'd go to the cemetery and sing while they were taking care of the grave--filling in. We'd sing three or four songs while they were doing that. The crowd was all standing around there listening to the singers until it was all completed.

We done that almost every time when we were out in the country. They expected us to sing. It was the custom then. Now, everybody is too busy for all that. They just want you to sing just a couple of stanzas at the service inside. Funeral homes now prefer for you not to sing all of a song, just a stanza or two--everything's over in half an hour.

But all my life you might say since I was large enough to sing, I've sung at funerals--at first just in that neighborhood, but after I got up in the twenties, we'd go to different places in the community where they had a church and cemetery. That was more a community thing--not just one group. By that time, most of my funeral singing was quartet singing. During the years from the time I was thirty to fifty, I expect I might have sung possibly fifty duets in that period, but not much duet singing. It was mostly quartet singing.

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I haven't sung much since I had my stroke. Of course people knew I was knocked out and they wouldn't ask me to sing. There's a quartet that I did sing with some after that when they'd ask me to sing. I wasn't a steady member in it, but if one of them couldn't go, why they'd get me to take their place.

Did you ever have any singing lessons or training in music?"

Oh yes, but I never did take voice. I'm singing in my natural voice. When I was a lad between fifteen and twenty I went to half a dozen singing schools to learn music, but not voice.

Just community singing schools, not in school?

No. I never got much of that in my other education. I'm just kind of what you call an ignorant boy!

I don't think so. I really don't. Did you ever sing at a home funeral?

Back several years ago we sang at lots of funerals at the home. It was people we knew like that. It wasn't like we had to go out and do things perfect. They understood we didn't have any music and we were out in the open. In most cases if the weather was fit, they'd have the service out in the yard. Of course, it wasn't that way all the time. Sometimes there were funerals in the house. Usually several people would attend these country funerals--the whole neighborhood would come. Back in those days we sang without accompaniment. Just take a tuning fork and tu-u-n-n-n-n-g. Get the pitch and away we would go.

Would there be more funerals at the weekend?

Not necessarily. They couldn't pick the day. In older days they didn't embalm the body and they couldn't keep them. There was a few years here that the funeral homes wouldn't have a funeral on sunday. They'd have it the day before or the day after.

What was the reason?

The ministers were busy. It interfered with church work in every way. It just wasn't satisfactory. It would just spoil for a lot of people the Sabbath Day.

Have you been asked to more than one funeral in a day?

We had three one evening at the same hour. I'd promised my organist who had a relative pass away. The evening before a group come up to my store and wanted my quartet to sing at their funeral at two o'clock the next day. That was the same time as the one we had. Well, I couldn't go back on my organist--I had to go through with that, so I said, "I'll find you a quartet." And I went out and got another quartet for them. Then it wasn't an hour until there was another group come in. They had brought somebody in, see, not here that it happened. These folks brought somebody back to bury, so they come and wanted me--I guess the funeral home sent them. The one we had was a different funeral home--it wasn't from here, so they come and told me their story, and I said, "We'll have to find you a quartet. We've already got a funeral for tomorrow evening at two o'clock." They wanted theirs the same time, so I said, "Come go with me. I'll get you a quartet." And that evening after they got back to town, both of those groups come in and thanked me for helping them out. We had the three that evening at the same hour.

Have you actually sung at more than one in any one day?

It's been several years ago--we had a singing convention over in Dallas County on Sunday and they was having a funeral there the next morning and they asked me to do that funeral. So I agreed to do it. They were having one at Hough Chapel at eleven o'clock the same morning. So they had the first one over there a little early on account of me having to go to Hough. So we done our singing before the service at the one in the other county, then got to Hough just in time to sing there. Then we had to drive back to town for one at two o'clock that afternoon. It just kept us on the move. You can have two funerals in a day and get along with it, but it is hard to have three of them twenty-five or thirty miles to go over to do that.

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If people asked you again and again, you must have been a good singer. Did you ever need to practice?

My policy was to never go and try to sing a quartet at a funeral until I knew how it was going to sound. I wouldn't go and just sing any way. I wanted to know just what we were going to do, because that could be embarrassing. And that was not my way of doing. I wanted to do the best that I could do with what I had. We always tried to get together the night before or just before the funeral and run over the songs we were going to sing. We knew which part each was going to do so that we didn't have to organize after we got there. That was my policy when I was running the quartet and I run it for several years--possibly twenty-five or more years.

I was the leader in the quartet. If one of our men would get a job someplace and couldn't be in, why it was up to me to find someone to do it and get it balanced so it would be all right. We were noted as a good quartet. Everyone in the county and out of the county would call on us to sing at funerals. I'd say for twenty years after I began singing for the funeral homes, each funeral home would call me and tell me when they wanted me to do it.

What part did you sing?

I sang all of them. In early days I sang tenor a hundred percent. Then it got to where I had to take some other parts in order to have the quartet balanced, see. Then I sang the lead. But I've sang bass and alto. And I sing some just mud!

What are the four parts in a quartet?

Bass, tenor, alto and soprano. Sometimes we had women singing, but most of the time it was men. The men sang the soprano and alto parts an octave lower.

My daughter sang in the quartet when it was so she could go with us. Sometimes she was in school and couldn't go, but I took her out of school a few times. I used several of the school girls here. Some of them were good players. All the time you don't have someone to play, you know, and I had two or three different girls that would play--get out of school and do it. They were all happy to go when I needed them.

I've just sang any way. I've had to. I used to in my younger days I could sing the alto high--like a lady. I can't now. I can sing it, but I sing it low. I don't try to sing it up the octave high. But once in a while there is a song I can still go that high on, but I don't try to any more. I know when I can and when I can't and I try to not do something I know I can't. I've always figured that way. Sometimes they'd select something that I'd never heard even. But if I could run over it before I got there, it was always good. I'd say, "Oh, we'll do it anyway."

Did it ever hurt your business to be gone so much?

I think it brought me business. I'd sometimes just have to walk off with folks in there. When the time comes, you just have to be there. My wife part of the time had her office in my store and she could keep them pacified, see. We had one man--agent, showing me stuff--he was there different times when I'd just have to go. Well, he'd just sit there and visit with her till I got back. He didn't think anything about it. In fact he appreciated it.

Didn't it cost you? Did you feel you lost a lot of money to drive to funerals and take off from work?

I didn't feel I was losing anything. I gained.

Did you ever get paid?

Not very often. In later years sometimes the undertaker would leave some money, but that first was all free.

You never asked to be paid?

No. They got to where they'd give us a ten dollar bill. That'd be two dollars apiece for the player and four singers. We'd take that and be tickled to death, or we'd go and do it and be just as well tickled as we was that way. We never asked for money. Then other places it'd be out of the county and we'd go and we'd sing and they'd give us twenty dollars, see. And that just made us almost rich! But it was nice to be able to do it and people appreciated it. We give them our best. All seemed to think it was good enough.

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When we started out we never thought about getting pay when we was in the country before we come to town. We didn't just have an organized quartet until we come to town. We all sang. At that particular time sometimes we'd have to change parts with the condition like it was to balance up and go. But after we come to town, we had quartet singing. I was convenient to the funeral homes here where they could get in touch with me on the phone more than the rest of them. They would just call me and tell me who it was and where it'd be and if they had any special songs they'd tell me what they wanted. It was practically all done in that way for twenty years. It got to be known as the Ashford Hough Quartet because they used me to organize the singers.

Of course you can't always get the same quartet. That changes with maybe a year or two's time and you have to get someone else to take a place. That's the reason for me singing different parts. Maybe if we'd get someone who could sing the tenor, I'd have to give that up and take another part. Any part that it was necessary--if they didn't have--why I'd take that part. It wasn't the reason that I was a good singer that I would do that, it was a necessity. In fact, it wasn't the reason I was such a good singer that I sang at so many funerals. It was convenient for them to get me.

If the family wanted you to pick a song, would you or would you talk to the minister?

No, I didn't fool with the minister. If the family had give the minister something for us to sing, why I'd sing it. I never asked a minister what I ought to sing. I figured his business was to do the other and it was my business to take care of that. You can't let everybody take a hand in it if you are trying to do something. And I tried to do it so the family would be happy with what we done.

Most of the deals in those days the relatives would pick the songs they wanted sung. Then it got to be where they'd call me and say, "You just sing what you think would be right." A large majority of the songs when we'd sing in quartets, they wouldn't even suggest a song. They'd say, "You know what's good to sing and you just go ahead and do it."

Did you have certain songs you used a lot?

"Going Down the Valley One by One," we sang that so often. They'd ask for that. I haven't heard it for awhile. The songs would be from the church songbook. "In the Garden," "We'll Never Grow Old, .... Heaven Holds on to Me." We sang that quite frequently. "The Circle Be Unbroken, .... Each Step I Take."

"When They Ring the Golden Bells," we sang that. It's really not a funeral song, but we've had folks ask for it and we tried to sing it, not in a jingle fashion, but like it meant something.

When They Ring the Golden Bells
There's a land beyond the river,
That we call the sweet forever,
And we only reach that shore by
faith decree;
One by one we'll gain the portals,
There to dwell with the immortals,
When they ring the golden bells for
you and me.

Don't you hear the bells now ringing?
Don't you hear the angels singing?
'Tis the glory hallelujah jubilee.
In that far off sweet forever,
Just beyond the shining river,
When they ring the golden bells for
you and me.

It was mostly on request we sang that. We had the Baptist preacher heretic's been several years ago--and a lady passed away. The family asked for that song. Now he came to see me and he said, "Now you don't need to sing that. You can change it and sing something else." To him it didn't make sense. But I said, "Oh yeah. We'll sing it and it'll be all right."

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They all liked it. He did when we sang it, but we didn't sing it like he thought it would be. But it's a nice song.

Do you have any favorite songs?

Oh, I don't know. I've sang them so long and so much. I love "Precious Memories."

Precious memories, unseen angels,
Sent from somewhere to my soul;
How they linger, ever near me,
And the sacred past unfold.

Precious memories how they linger,
How they ever flood my soul,
In the stillness of the midnight,
Precious, sacred scenes unfold.

I sang that at the funeral of three boys that were drowned. I counted the people at that funeral. I was setting up on the front seat and the casket was just over at the side and as they come in, I counted them and they was close to nine hundred people that passed through there.

I'll bet it's been hard for you at times to sing, hasn't it, especially for close friends?

I called on one man I'd sung with to sing with us at a funeral, but he was sick and couldn't go. I went down to see him that morning at the hospital before I went to the funeral. But he got worse. When I got back form the funeral after supper, I went back to the hospital and he died while I was there--passed away. And the next morning they called--wanted me to do the funeral. That was a pretty hard one. I'd sung with him no telling--I expect a thousand funerals that he had sung with me and then have to sing on his.

Then Rob Dennis. I'd sung with him from the start, but he was out several intervals as he wasn't around, but I sang at his funeral. And I had a buddy that was in with me in real estate--I done that some--and he passed away. They called me to come sing at his funeral. And I had another buddy that was as close to me as anyone gets. He passed away and they called on me to do that funeral. I've done funerals that was so close it was hard to even think about.

My borther-in-law, Wright. He got in bad shape and we just couldn't do anything for him. We were there. We lived just about a quarter of a mile from them. Ella and I were married but we hadn't been married too long and we visited back and forth--lived together almost--and we were over there when he passed away. He--oh, an hour before he went--he asked us to sing. We did and he even sang with us. He didn't have all the words, he just didn't have the breath to say all the words, but he was right along with us in the songs. And he passed away while we were singing. And I sang at his funeral.

Mom, play one. Let me just run over one for the girls. It won't take but a minute. Just a verse. I've been out a-sprouting all this morning. I'm not in very good shape. I'll sing the first verse soprano and I'll sing the second verse tenor. How's that?

Great!

Face to face with Christ my Saviour,
Face to face--what will it be?
When with rapture I behold him,
Jesus Christ who died for me.

Face to face shall I behold him,
Far beyond the starry sky;
Face to face in all his glory,
I shall see him by and by!

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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