Hugh McGraw was born February 20, 1931, in Central Hatchee in Herd County, Georgia. His father, John McGraw, worked for the railroad, and his mother, Lillie Ashley, was a seamstress at the Sewell Manufacturing Company. When Hugh was about three months old, his family moved to Villarica, Georgia, where he grew up until the age of 12, when they relocated to Bremen, Georgia.
Hugh's parents introduced him to shape-note singing. "The McGraw family has been involved in Sacred Harp music for well over a hundred years," he said, "but I didn't get involved until I was 25 years old. I'd go to a singing with my mother and father, but I thought it was more important to stay outside and play in the spring and run around the house than it was to learn this tradition."
In 1952, McGraw changed his mind. "I walked into a singing — after I was done married and had a family. And I heard this music, and something just petrified me. Says you got to do your thing. So I began studying and teaching, composing, and singing this music all over the country."
The Sacred Harp shape-note songbook, compiled by B. F. White and E. J. King and first published in 1844, is a collection of American choral religious music that emphasizes settings of tunes transcribed from oral tradition. Some of the melodies originated in the Old World, and others stemmed from eighteenth-century American composers. It employs a system of symbols for notes that is simpler than conventional musical notation. The book began as a text for rural singing schools and, by the 1850s, gained an additional function as the focus of periodic singing conventions. This tradition continues today in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas.
Several generations of McGraw's family have taken part in the Sacred Harp tradition, but none with more enthusiasm and skill than Hugh. He taught many singing schools and organized singers to revive the tradition in their own communities. In addition, he helped groups of Sacred Harp singers travel to national festivals.
To support his family, McGraw worked as the manager of a Bremen clothing manufacturing plant, but in his free time he served as executive secretary and treasurer of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. Over several decades he was respected as a charismatic leader of a diverse group of singers, and in 1991 he was the inspiration for the revision of the Sacred Harp songbook. For the revision, he convened a committee of Alabama and Georgia singers and coordinated the addition of a number of songs; some were recently composed; others were selected from older books. Many of these songs were already being sung from photocopies. The committee solicited and reviewed this material, then chose 60 songs, 37 of which were written by authors who were then alive. Nearly half of the songs use the poetry of Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and many were from Colonial American composers already familiar to singers, including William Billings (1746-1800) of Boston, Daniel Read (1757-1836) of New Haven, and Timothy Swan (1758-1842) of Northfield, Massachusetts.
For McGraw, the preservation of music and community is integral to his life. "A lot of people don't sing this old music because it's 'old fogey.' You know 'old fogey' means a caretaker. A caretaker preserving something that's worth preserving. And that's what we're trying to do in preserving this music, our national heritage."