Editor’s Note: United Kingdom–based singer Rebecca Over fell in love with the songs of the McGraw family soon after she began singing Sacred Harp in 2009. An avid researcher, Rebecca got to know living McGraws such as Earlis during trips to the United States following the footsteps of singers and composers from past generations such as Lee Andrew McGraw and Silas Mercer Brown. She quickly became a beloved adopted family member. Thanks to Rebecca for contributing this essay in honor of Earlis McGraw, who received the Sacred Harp Publishing Company’s posthumous citation in 2017 for his “untiring support of and dedicated service to the cause of Sacred Harp music.”
When Earlis McGraw of Carrollton, Georgia passed away on June 8, 2016, at the age of eighty, the Sacred Harp singing communities of West Georgia and East Alabama lost a faithful supporter, a stalwart treble singer, a warm and welcoming friend, and a kind and generous man.
Earlis came from a long line of singers. His great grandmother, Augusta “Gussie” Entrekin McGraw (1864–1940), was well known for her clear and beautiful treble voice. She could carry the treble part on her own if necessary and seldom if ever looked at her book even while leading. Though her husband Roland Jackson McGraw (1859–1910) “couldn’t carry a tune in a water bucket,” according to Gussie as quoted by their grandson Albert Jackson McGraw (1921–2006), he joined the Chattahoochee Convention with her in 1889 at Standing Rock Church in Coweta County, Georgia. One of their children with them that that day would have been six-year-old Henry Newton McGraw (1883–1969).
H. N. “Bud” McGraw, Earlis’ grandfather, grew up to become a highly respected singer and teacher of singing schools. Like his elder brother Lee (1882–1957) and younger brother Tom (1890–1970) he could sing any part of any song in the book. All three composed music, and four songs by Bud remain in The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition, “Sabbath Morning,” “Holly Springs,” “Eternal Light,” and “Praise Him” (pp. 283, 453, 483 and 544).
Bud married Lydia Young (1888–1969) in 1905 and their fourth child Thomas Buford McGraw became a dedicated and enthusiastic singer, attending his father’s singing schools and regularly traveling to singings throughout Georgia and Alabama. He inherited the family talent for treble singing and his strong, clear treble voice inspired younger singers to take up that part. He also composed one song in our current book, “The Throne of Grace” (p. 476).
When Buford married Florence Gladys Wallace (1911–2007) in 1929, it was a union of two singing families. Gladys was a singer and one of the daughters of singers Walter Wallace (1881–1969) and Maude Holcombe (1888–1975). Many of her siblings sang. These include youngest sister Charlene Wallace, who continues to be a stalwart supporter of Sacred Harp singing in West Georgia. Buford and Gladys made their home in Mount Zion, Carroll County, Georgia.
On July 27, 1935, the second child and first son of Buford and Gladys was born. They named him Thomas Earlis McGraw. It was the Saturday of the Mount Zion Memorial Singing, at which McGraws had served as officers since the mid 1920s. Buford was heard to remark that despite being thrilled by the birth of his son it was bad timing because it meant he had to miss the singing. For Earlis, the timing was good. In later life he loved the fact that in some years he could celebrate his birthday on the Saturday or Sunday of the singing, surrounded by family, singers, and friends. More recently he was especially delighted to share his birthday with young Eli Hinton, son of singers Matt and Erica Hinton of Atlanta.
Buford and Gladys encouraged all their children to sing and to attend their grandfather Bud’s singing schools. Often three generations of McGraws traveled to singings together. Earlis remembered riding in the back of Bud’s car to the Coweta County Courthouse Singing in Newnan, Georgia, with Buford in the passenger seat.
Earlis began singing at around five years old. He first appears in the minutes leading music at Mount Zion in 1948 at the age of twelve when he conducted lessons on both days. Song numbers were not recorded but he remembered that “To Die No More” (p. 111b) was one of the first songs he learned. He followed in Buford’s footsteps to sing treble and loved nothing better than singing next to his father. Both particularly enjoyed the soaring treble line of “The Child of Grace” (p. 77t). He said he thought he never could sing as well as his father but Buford clearly considered him to be an excellent and powerful singer. One time they were driving to Birmingham, Alabama, to sing on a recording produced by the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. Buford told Earlis that he “might get moved” to another part because the two of them singing treble together would “blast the class out.”
From 1955 to 1960, Earlis served in the US Air Force, working on instrumentation in aircraft as diverse as transporters and fighters. This included tours of duty in Okinawa, Japan and in California. When he came home, he returned to Sacred Harp singing and sang for the rest of his life. He attended every session of the Mount Zion Memorial except one from 1963 up to and including 2015, serving as vice chairman in 1982 and 1983 and chairman from 2000 until he died in office in June 2016. He attended many other Georgia singings, served as chairman of the Coweta Courthouse singing at least once, and supported singings in Cleburne County, Alabama.
From 2005 through 2015, he chose to begin Saturday singing at Mount Zion with “Love Divine” (p. 30t). Other favorites included his grandfather Bud’s “Sabbath Morning,” Hugh McGraw’s “Reynolds,” and “Garden Hymn” (pp. 283, 225t, and 284). He never stopped adding to his extensive repertoire and I was especially pleased when it turned out that we had both been practicing “Where Ceaseless Ages Roll” (p. 505), during the same year.
Earlis served with the Carroll County Fire Service for thirty years. By the time he and I first met in June 2012, he was working at the Home Depot in Carrollton, where he tried to get as many weekend days off as he could to sing. He served on the Mount Zion City Council and carried out grass mowing, maintenance, and other work at the Sacred Harp Museum. In addition to Mount Zion, one of the places that he most loved to sing was Holly Springs. There he was the expert at operating the air conditioning or heating and he regularly attended the relatively recent “Third Thursday” evening practice singings. He was a kind, generous, and modest man and much of his work in support of Sacred Harp was unknown to most singers.
Earlis had a warm smile and a great sense of humor. Wawena Entrekin Miles, daughter of Ples Entrekin and grand-daughter of Mount Zion Charter Member Jones B. Entrekin, taught Earlis in primary school and still attends the Mount Zion Memorial. When asked if she wanted to lead at the 2015 session she said that instead of singing she wanted to say that Earlis, who would be eighty the next day, would not have turned out the good person he was if she had not “paddled” him when he misbehaved in school. With a twinkle in his eye he replied that he never had a “paddling” that he did not deserve.
He looked forward to the written instalments of family history that I brought over each year for him and other members of the family and he was very kind to me. By the summer of 2014 he was teasing me about the state of my songbook, which was just about falling apart. At Holly Springs that November, he presented me with a new book, signed by all the singers in the family including Charlene. In this he had written “To Rebecca P. Over (McGraw)”—a very great honor indeed. He told me I should now “retire” my old book and it has remained at home ever since.
Before the first day of singing at Holly Springs in June 2015, Earlis took me to see the plot in the cemetery where he would be buried. “I’ll be at the feet of Walter Wallace, just as I was in life” he joked with a smile. Little did either of us know then as we stood side by side in the sun just how soon he would be resting there.
In 2016 I planned an exceptional winter visit instead of the more usual June. Earlis came late to the Kerr Memorial in early January. He was not well and told me that he was waiting for the results of medical tests. He said he would feel better once the doctors knew what they were dealing with. For me his choice of “Parting Friend” (p. 414) with its plaintive alto line was particularly poignant. The other song he led that day was “Reynolds.” Later that month he was diagnosed with cancer.
Sacred Harp friendships can span continents and oceans. Cards were sent to Earlis from many UK singings that spring and also from the Ireland Convention, with signatures and messages from singers from all over the world. I brought forward work on a short history of the Mount Zion Memorial so that I could send him a copy. Unable to change travel plans, I was still hoping that he might be able to come to Mount Zion in July, but that was not to be.
His last singing was Holly Springs that June. It took supreme effort and will on his part but photographs clearly show how very happy he was to be there. I am deeply and profoundly moved by the fact that the last song he asked the class to sing was “McGraw” (p. 353) for me.
On Sunday July 23, 2017 at the 125th session of the Mount Zion Memorial Singing, Earlis became the latest in a long line of McGraws to posthumously receive a citation from the Sacred Harp Publishing Company to “honor and express appreciation” for his “outstanding work in the company and untiring support of and dedicated service to the cause of Sacred Harp music.” He was the 92nd person to receive a citation. Previous recipients include Lee A. McGraw (the 13th recipient), H. N. “Bud” McGraw (15th), Tom B. McGraw (38th), Buford McGraw (49th) and Earlis’s sister Carlene Griffin (88th). John Plunkett presented a plaque to his sister Judy Henry and brother Ricky McGraw.
Earlis is now surely singing with his father once again in that hollow square in heaven. With the passing of Hugh McGraw on May 28, 2017, there are so many McGraws in that class that the singing must be wonderful indeed. Here on earth his line of singing McGraws continues. His son Thomas “Tommy” Earlis McGraw, Jr. not only carries forward the family name but also sings. When asked how long he had been singing he joked that he went to his first singing with his mother Peggy “Teenie” McGraw (1940–2013, later Moody) when she was pregnant with him. Both Tommy and his wife Sue attend the Mount Zion Memorial, though were unable to come in 2017 due to illness. They both continue the family tradition of treble singing that began with Gussie McGraw all those years ago.
The many contributions that Earlis made to Sacred Harp, both at singings and behind the scenes, are greatly missed. Every time I go to the Mount Zion Memorial Singing I remember his friendship and kindness, and whenever I bring in the trebles while leading I see his smiling face. Other singers have willingly stepped up to take on the many duties that were once performed by this very special man and the singings that he loved continue. In this way, his memory lives on.