I recently was invited to ride with the world-renowned duo of Hugh McGraw and Charlene Wallace to Oscar McGuire’s monthly singing school down in Roberta, Georgia. No Sacred Harp singer in their right mind would pass up such an opportunity, so of course I said yes. How I, a mere babe when it comes to shape-note singing, became associated with these two pantheons of the singing community is another article in itself. For now, I hope to share with you some things I learned on our crusade.
I’ll begin with a shameless plug for Oscar by saying if you haven’t been to one of his schools I highly recommend it. I learned more about the principles of the music and found why the music is written and sung the way it is quite fascinating and ingenious. I was also reminded of music theory involving chords and scales that I had forgotten over the years. Altogether the music began to make a little more sense to me. Try to make it to one of his schools if you can, you will be glad you did.
My trip began promptly at 8:30 am with Mr. McGraw arriving at my house, about one mile from his own. From there we would pick Ms. Wallace up in Carrollton and drive another hour and a half south to Roberta. What an adventure it was. Little did we know that the “Peaches to Beaches” yard sale was occurring simultaneously. This is a statewide yard sale that stretches from somewhere around Newnan all the way down to Brunswick. Every few miles folks were stopping to find roadside bargains. Mr. McGraw repeatedly tried to tempt Charlene into stopping, but each time she reminded him she did not go “Yard Sailing” like some others they might know. I entreated him to stop at one with a Go-Kart I wanted to buy for my seven-year-old son, but he didn’t like the idea of strapping it to the roof of his Buick so alas we continued on our journey unimpeded.
Of course no road trip is complete without a moment when, as a passenger, you begin to wonder if this might be the last road trip you ever take. Make no mistake Mr. Hugh is a good driver, especially considering his age, and I would not hesitate to ride with him again. However, there was one particular incident where he thought it best to pass a semi-truck just before the four lane highway turned into two. At which point he became firmly embattled in a game of chicken with an oncoming car. Mr. Hugh refused to yield and both the approaching car and semi-truck were forced to the roadside. Thus, Hugh McGraw arrived on the two-lane victorious with no party suffering damages, and Charlene and I were assured and grateful that God does answer prayer. I have recently observed that Mr. McGraw is frequently on the go, and does not dilly dally. I don’t know if Hugh has ever even heard of Tom Petty, but it is clear he abides by Mr. Petty’s words, “… you never slow down you never grow old …” and is living proof that they are true. He does however know of Bruce Springsteen and is grateful for his recent use of “The Last Words of Copernicus” (p. 112 in The Sacred Harp).
Once we arrived safely in Roberta we were pleased to find that Oscar had gone through the trouble of preparing his famous store bought cinnamon rolls, which really hit the spot after a near death experience. After the morning class we also enjoyed a “Dutch Treat” lunch at Hudson’s BBQ in downtown Roberta (they were too poor to build a town square, so it’s more of a “T”). I offered to buy lunch to pay for my ride, but I was informed that “Dutch Treat” means each person pays for their own meal. Anyway, if you like barbecue it is pretty good, and if you like taxidermy the atmosphere is a little on the wild side too. We then cruised the town, which was in full array due to the community wide yard sale, before returning to sing. In the afternoon we each chose a song and did the best we could with the small group in attendance. At around 2 pm or so, we began our drive home.
A year ago or so I began compiling a list of questions to ask Hugh. At singings he is usually surrounded by others and there is not enough time to talk to him as much as I would like. I thought this trip would be an excellent time to ask my questions. The three of us talked virtually the whole way there and back on a myriad of topics. I was going from memory and didn’t remember all my questions, but I did get a few answered. The interviews I have seen and heard with Hugh have mainly focused on Sacred Harp and his personal involvement. My questions are more on his musical compositions and writing shape-note music in general. This is what he told me that you may or may not already know.
Hugh began writing songs about seven or eight years after he started singing Sacred Harp. This would be somewhere around 1958. He would hum a lot as he went about his day and write down a melody first. Then he would give it to other accomplished singers and composers to get their input. He would keep refining it until he got the finished product we sing today. Prior to singing Sacred Harp he learned to play the guitar and sing, and learned a little piano too. He wrote songs up until 1992 at which point he felt like he should “retire” from song writing. Even so, composers still give him songs today to improve. If you look at the previous edition of The Sacred Harp, you’ll see that Mr. Hugh also wrote alto parts to some of the older songs which are not attributed to him in the 1991 edition. The first song he wrote was “Living Hope” (p. 500), and the song he enjoys singing the most that he wrote is “Phillips Farewell” (p. 549). That is really all I remember that I had not already learned.
Together Hugh and Charlene explained a lot about Sacred Harp in general and shared some stories from years gone by. They obviously care deeply about the music and all the traditions that go along with it, and have a great concern for the future of Sacred Harp. We all had a good time, and I hope to travel with them again soon. So whether you’ve been singing Sacred Harp for decades or are a beginner, head to one of Oscar McGuire’s singing schools. You will learn a lot, maybe more from the trip there and back, and hopefully I will see you there.
My favorite snippet of conversation with Charlene Wallace was at the first Georgia State Christian Harmony Convention in 2010. Charlene was seated with her lunch at the far end of the row of food tables. I had gotten something that I didn’t recognize. It turned out to be quinoa. I showed it to Charlene and asked if she knew what it was. “No,” she replied, “but I think they call it vegetarian food.” My sentiments exactly!