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Harris Blackwood: A musical tribute creates smiles, tapping toes
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

In a true Southerner’s life, the two biggest events are generally a wedding and a funeral.

Most weddings offer the luxury of many months to plan the entire shindig, from dresses to dances.

A funeral, while equally important, only allows a few days to plan the send-off for a loved one. In reality, a funeral is a worship service to thank God for the life of someone.

These days, a lot of folks don’t have a lot of religiosity to toss in the mix. For some folks, the last thing they remember is a matronly woman teaching them “Jesus Loves Me” and making something resembling a scroll with a scripture verse written in crayon.

For them, funerals have become a storytelling contest with friends recounting funny moments in a person’s life.

That didn’t happen at Fred Mulkey’s funeral. It was a celebration of a life well lived and the centerpiece of it all was his family, faith, church and music.

Fred was a fixture at First Presbyterian Church of Gainesville. He was involved in many aspects of ministry. Knowing it was being held at the church, I wrongly imagined that it might involve a lot of readings and pomp and circumstance.

On this particular Sunday, the “frozen chosen” found their rhythm.

When the Rev. Chuck Nation, a Baptist preacher and champion fiddle player, sawed away on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” there was some serious foot-patting going on in that stained glass sanctuary. His daughter, Libby, joined him on guitar and when they finished, the congregation applauded.

Two medical doctors, John Darden and Tennent Slack, brought out their guitars to honor their friend and fellow musician.

Darden sang the 19th century gospel song, “When They Ring Those Golden Bells.”

“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.”

Slack fought back tears as he joined Gina Tipton on “Rock of Ages.” The music included all verses of “Amazing Grace” with few in the congregation having to reach for a hymnal.

After a wonderful and personal eulogy by Rev. Paul Evans, all of the musicians joined together for “I’ll Fly Away,” “I Saw the Light,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

The Baptists in attendance got a little tripped up on The Lord’s Prayer. Baptists are “trespassers,” while Presbyterians are “debtors.” It made me smile.

Fred made a living selling insurance. He made his life with music. It was ironic that in a room where the largest objects were shiny silver pipes of the organ, they never made a sound.

Fred and an assortment of bands played music at everything from political rallies to public picnics. He loved those great old songs of yesteryear.

I played with him only once at a Christmas luncheon for a ladies’ group. His calm, gentle manner made it sound like we had been playing forever. We didn’t even rehearse.

He was one of those great people who didn’t shine in the spotlight, but had a wonderful glow that was generated by his gentle spirit. His impact on this community can be measured by the fact that there was a standing-room only crowd at his funeral. Some stood, some sat, but all found a smile to remember this special man.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on

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