Local Nonprofit Providing Musical Last Wishes Pivots To Virtual Concerts

Tuesday, July 14th 2020

Sam Barrington is in his final stage of life and spends his days slowly perfecting his painting skills. It’s a hobby he started after growing restless in retirement. A massive stroke six years ago severely slowed him down and he lost the use of his legs. But he keeps picking up the paintbrush each day because it gives him a creative outlet and a sense of purpose.

Sam’s other passion is gospel music. But he never dreamed his favorite gospel group would play a private concert in his living room. Swan Songs made that dream a reality. The mission of the local nonprofit is to bring joy, connection and comfort at the end of life through music. Landing the Chuck Wagon Gang was a longshot because they are a nationally touring group. But the group had one Texas tour date and agreed to swing by Sam’s house for a personal concert.

Tilly Barrington is Sam’s wife of 20 years. She was surprised and delighted when she found out about the Swan Songs concert.

“I almost fell out of my chair because I know how important they are to him. The Chuck Wagon Gang is coming to our house,” she said.

Sam relished every minute of not only the music but sharing his memories. The Chuck Wagon Gang has a rich history. It started during the Depression and several generations of singers have kept the music going.

Shaye Smith’s grandmother started the group. She says Sam is much like many of the older people who remember the gang from childhood.

“He's been listening to the gang since he was a small child. It’s similar to stories from so many of our senior citizens who remember hearing the gang on the radio or record players,” she said. “For Sam, some of these songs are much more real than we may realize. He is at this point in life, experiencing what he is experiencing right now and the words just kind of become alive.”

Making the words and music come alive is one of the goals of Swan Songs. Musician Christine Albert started the nonprofit in 2005.

“Our mission is really to bring joy and comfort and connection at the end of life,” she said.

Since Swan Songs is a nonprofit that relies on donations and volunteers, the families don’t have to pay for these final concerts and the musicians are compensated for their performances. In the past 15 years, Swan Songs has made more than 1,000 concerts possible for terminally ill Central Texans. Though live, in-home concerts are at the heart of the mission, the pandemic has forced Swan Songs to pivot to virtual or outdoor concerts.

One Swan Songs concert took place via Zoom in early June. Just a few days before Dr. Adrian Sorrell died of pancreatic cancer, he was treated to a virtual concert featuring songs from his favorite group, Tower of Power. Since bringing in a big name group on short notice wasn’t possible, Swan Songs asked renowned saxophone player Carlos Sosa to serenade Sorrell with Tower of Power songs.

Albert said Sorrell truly enjoyed the concert and so did Sosa.

“He (Carlos) just went with it. He not only called and talked and played sax, but he has a studio, so he had Tower of Power music playing through studio speakers and he played along with it,” Albert said.

Sam and Tilly Barrington had the good fortune of hosting a pre-pandemic concert with a house full of friends and family. Albert said that’s the ideal situation, but it hasn’t been possible since mid-March due to the pandemic.

“It’s as much for the tribe around the person as it is for the recipient themself,” Albert said. “It gives everyone something to share and focus on, instead of the illness, at a time when that's really hard to do.”

Whether it’s in-person, virtual, or outside, the vision of the Swan Songs concerts is celebrating life and touching hearts through music. And that’s exactly the impact it had on Sam Barrington.

“I’ve never been a big shot, but I reckon one always wants to be one,” he said. “And I was today when the Chuck Wagon Gang came to sing for me and some of my friends.”

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