Ray Wofford died Jan. 4, but they're still singing his praises.
Singing indeed. Because music was Ray's life, and it became that to uncounted others whom he touched. It was the dominant facet of the self-taught musician's personality, but he also was a farmer, caregiver, devout Christian and generous to a fault.
Except for the last few weeks in a nursing home, Ray lived all his 84 years in the farmhouse he was born and brought up in on Sardis Road in northwest Hall County. It was the home of his parents, whom he helped care for in their twilight years. He also took care of his older sister, who was injured in an accident at age 11 and required constant attention. Ray never married.
A friend, Perino Cochran, described him as the most distinguished gentleman he'd ever known, yet lived a simple life. He was widely known in area churches, where he led singings, taught music, played his accordion or guitar and sang at untold weddings or funerals.
His niece, Mary Jane Harkins, and her husband, Fred, echoed those remarks and recalled his love of farming along with his music.
Stop by Benny's Gulf Service in Murrayville, and you're liable to get a tune with your tune-up. Benny Hatcher and wife Maxine keep an organ and piano in their store and have been known to sing for hours in between oil changes. They attribute their passion for music to Ray Wofford, who turned Benny on to singing 30 years ago. They sang in groups together, notably the Homelight Trio with Stan Souther, another Wofford protege.
Wofford also had been with the Pilgrim's and the Homeland Harmony quartets.
Benny, Stan and others would go to Ray's old farmhouse, where he patiently taught them shape notes on a chalkboard. They might start after supper and sing till 2 a.m. While they sang, "He would talk to me without saying a word," Benny said, "motioning with his elbows, knees or accordion."
Ray wrote numerous songs that are in church hymnals, particularly "The Lights of Home." One song he wrote was changed slightly and published without his approval. "That's not the way the Lord gave it to me," Benny said Ray told him.
Souther started learning music from Ray at age 19. He was uptight at first, but Ray would use a stick to point out notes, and Benny told him he had to "just bust out." That loosened Souther up, and during one all-night session, "I heard what harmony was, and everything came together. I knew it," he said.
People tried to pay Ray for his services, whether singing for a funeral or teaching lessons, but he wouldn't accept money. If a pupil gave him a check, he would put it in his Bible and never cash it. If others drove Ray to a singing, he would slip a $20 bill into their guitars to pay for gas. "He didn't want the sun going down owing anybody," Benny said.
"You couldn't do anything for him; he was so independent," Mary Harkins said. If you gave him something, he would return the favor twofold.
Ray sold produce from his farm, but he gave much of it away. He made a living raising chickens and working part time at Chicopee.
Ray prayed over everything, Maxine and Benny Hatcher said. Maxine recalls Ray's refrigerator stopped running, and Ray said he guess he'd have to buy another one. He began to pray about it, leaning against the old refrigerator. All of a sudden it began to run again.
Likewise, his old tractor wouldn't move the harrows to the proper height. Ray began walking up the road to get help, praying over the situation. When he glanced back at the tractor, the harrows had returned to the right position, Benny said.
Sometimes Ray would seem to lose weight, a concern to his neighbors. But, Benny said, he was just writing another song. "He was like a hen sitting on a nest waiting to lay an egg."
Just before Ray's health failed, he told Benny he thought he was going to die. He lay on the couch for three days before suddenly getting up and writing the song, "The Crossing Is Near." It was the last song he wrote.
Ray left with Mary Harkins a recording of the words of another song, "On My Journey Home," to be played at his funeral.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. Published Jan. 20, 2008.