Remembering Carlene McGraw Griffin, a Lifelong Sacred Harp Singer

Carlene McGraw Griffin with her aunt Charlene Wallace at Holly Springs

Carlene McGraw Griffin (left) with her aunt Charlene Wallace at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church, Bremen, Georgia.

In 2015, Carlene McGraw Griffin became the eighty-eighth recipient of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Citation, an award presented posthumously to “honor and express appreciation to loyal supporters and dedicated singers for outstanding work in the company and untiring support of and dedicated service to the cause of Sacred Harp music.” A resource page from the Sacred Harp Museum describes the citation program and lists past recipients of the award.

Carlene was born in Carroll County, Georgia on May 26, 1930, the oldest child of Thomas Buford McGraw and Gladys Wallace McGraw. Her parents were both members of families who have been instrumental in the Sacred Harp community for generations. Her father, who went by his middle name Buford, was the 49th recipient of the Publishing Company’s citation and composed “The Throne of Grace” (p. 476 in The Sacred Harp). Carlene’s grandfather, H. N. McGraw, and great uncles T. B. and L. A. McGraw, also received the citation. It is no surprise then that Carlene was attending singings from day one.

As a child, Carlene and her siblings Earlis, Ricky, Carolyn, Gary, and Judy (Henry) would attend as many singings and singing schools as they could. Many of those singing schools were led by their grandfather, H. N. McGraw. This provided the foundation for a lifelong love of and dedication to Sacred Harp music. Carlene began by singing in the tenor section, as most do, and later moved to the alto bench.

Gladys Wallace McGraw with her children on her 90th birthday. L to R Back: Gary, Ricky, Earlis, and Carlene, Front: Judy, Gladys, and Carolyn

Gladys Wallace McGraw with her children on her ninetieth birthday. Back (left to right): Gary, Ricky, Earlis and Carlene. Front: Judy, Gladys and Carolyn.

Carlene and her husband, Nick, were especially instrumental in spreading the Sacred Harp singing tradition across the United States and internationally. They purchased a van specifically for transporting singers across the country. Together they and a contingent of singers from West Georgia were like evangelists spreading the “Good News” of Sacred Harp. They traveled nearly every weekend to singings near and far, covering thousands of miles. This group of singers included her siblings and others such as Hugh McGraw, Richard DeLong, and her aunt Charlene Wallace. Carlene was always ready and willing to go wherever the next singing might be.

On one particular occasion the group was making their way to a convention in Texas in the Griffins’ van. As they traveled the group would often sing the songs they knew and loved so well. Somewhere near Vicksburg, Mississippi they were enjoying a spirited rendition of “Fire Alarm” (p. 25). Little did they know a real fire was about to ensue. The van’s transmission suddenly blew up, pouring transmission fluid onto the hot engine’s exhaust. The van caught fire and the song came to an abrupt end. A roadside evacuation commenced. Hugh McGraw quickly grabbed a tire iron and began shoveling dirt under the van to suppress the fire. After making a hasty exit from the burning vehicle Charlene Wallace realized she left her pocketbook. She returned to rescue it over Hugh’s vigorous objections. She emerged from the flames unscathed with pocketbook in hand. Thanks to the efforts of Hugh McGraw and a neighborly truck driver with a fire extinguisher the fire was suppressed before the van was entirely engulfed in flames. Reports indicate that no one was injured and no songbooks were destroyed in the incident. However, all were demoralized and dejected—resigned to the fact that they were likely to miss the singing. As luck would have it though, the van was not beyond repair. They were able to have the van fixed at a local mechanic shop adjacent to a Holiday Inn. They were back on the road the next day, and had an exciting excuse for arriving a day late to the convention. The van remained in service for a few more years and thousands more miles.

Carlene’s travels by van, car, Ruth Brown’s bus, and plane took her to singings all over the United States. She led at the first Midwest Convention, held in Chicago in 1985, and the first All-California Convention in 1989. Her travels also took her outside the United States to sing in Canada and Israel. She enjoyed seeing new places and meeting new people. She also enjoyed collecting little mementos from each place she visited to remind her of the travels. These keepsakes ranged from a rock she picked up in the “Holy Land” to souvenirs shaped like state outlines. Over the years she amassed quite a collection, which she displayed like trophies on a shelf. Thanks to the efforts of Carlene and those she traveled with during this important period in Sacred Harp’s growth, the tradition has expanded far beyond its base in the South.

Carlene leading “Hallelujah” (p. 146) at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church. From Disc 2 of Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp courtesy of Awake Productions.

Carlene had a dry sense of humor and saw the joy in life. She was a caring and industrious individual. She worked for many years in the textile industry, employed by the Arrow Shirt and Sewell Manufacturing companies. She was a devoted member of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Mt. Zion, Georgia. She and Nick were married for fifty years and adopted three boys: Eddie, Danny, and Matt.

“Death is the gate to endless joy, and yet we dread to enter there.” Carlene entered that gate on January 9, 2014. She was interred with many other dedicated Sacred Harp singers in the cemetery at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. At least on two occasions she sang “Farewell to All” (p. 570), which states: “Though I can never come to thee; Let not this grieve your heart; For you will shortly come to me, Where we shall never part.” Carlene has now joined another contingent of singers. It includes her parents, grandfather, and many other dear friends from near and far. They have traveled a great distance to yet another singing, one that lasts forever and is better than the best singing any of us have ever experienced. Carlene wouldn’t miss it, and maybe one day we’ll get to sing with her and all the rest throughout eternity.

About Jason Stanford

Jason Stanford is the great grandson of Reby Stanford, who was a lifelong Sacred Harp singer and sister of Sacred Harp Publishing Company Treasurer Charlene Wallace. He lives in Bremen, Georgia, and has been singing Sacred Harp since 2010.
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4 Responses to Remembering Carlene McGraw Griffin, a Lifelong Sacred Harp Singer

  1. Darrell L. McGraw says:

    Thank you for this interesting story about a cousin I never met. My grandfather was Lee Andrew McGraw, who has been included in many stories concerning Sacred Harp through the years.

  2. Karen Rollins says:

    I enjoyed your excellent article, Jason. I still miss Carlene; she was a warm, lovely, funny person. I will always remember how kind she was to my mother after Mom lost much of her memory to Alzheimer’s. I also recall her great sense of humor; she and Earlis were very quick with spot-on comments that drew a laugh. I remember that one of the preachers at her funeral talked about her welcoming hospitality; she always shared whatever she had with those she encountered. And, of course, she was a good singer and ambassador for Sacred Harp.

  3. Juanita Kyle Boardman says:

    Thank you for this tribute. I sang with Charlene, Ruth, and Buford back in the 1970s.

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