Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
When Sunday ComesGospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras$

Claudrena N. Harold

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780252043574

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252043574.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM ILLINOIS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.illinois.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Illinois University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in ISO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 30 June 2022

Hold My Mule

Hold My Mule

Shirley Caesar and the Gospel of the New South

Chapter:
(p.65) Chapter 3 Hold My Mule
Source:
When Sunday Comes
Author(s):

Claudrena N. Harold

Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5622/illinois/9780252043574.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the music and political activism of Shirley Caesar. Drawing on a rich body of archival sources, this chapter makes three important interventions: (1) it complicates conventional representations of Caesar as solely a traditional gospel artist by charting the influence of R&B and country on her music; (2) it details how Caesar’s signing with Word Records in 1980 signaled white Christian labels’ efforts to claim a bigger share of the black gospel market; and (3) it explores how Caesar navigated the black church’s gender politics. Along with illuminating Caesar’s remarkable success as an artist who identified strongly with the New South, this chapter also examines how she used her platform to build what religious studies scholar Cheryl Sanders calls “prophetic community.”

Keywords:   Shirley Caesar, Word Records, country music, gender politics, prophetic community, New South

There is nowhere in the USA quite like America’s South; there is no place more difficult to fully understand or fully capture. … The people who walk that land, both black and white, wear masks and more masks, then masks beneath those masks. They are tricksters and shape-shifters, magicians and carnival barkers, able to metamorphize right before your eyes into good old boys, respectable lawyers, polite society types, brilliant scholars, great musicians, history makers, and everything’s-gonna-be-all-right Maya Angelou look-alikes—when in fact nothing’s gonna be all right.

JAMES MCBRIDE, Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

If one thing doesn’t work you shift and you do something else. If a fast song doesn’t work, you use a slow one. … I change every time I get up to sing. … I take everything into consideration, what’s going on around me, and I adjust my music for my audience. Yes indeed, I did it last night. Almost every time you hear me sing I do it. … Like for an example, the song my sister (Ann) sings “You can depend on Jesus.” I’ll say … in a sing-song fashion “Gonna be alright, gonna be, gonna be alright, everything’s gonna be alright.” Really what I’m waiting for, I’m waiting for the musicians to get into a pocket; by the time they get into that pocket, phone Aunt Jane. I’ll give you a quarter if she ain’t home.

SHIRLEY CAESAR in Brooksie Eugene Harrington, “Shirley Caesar: A Woman of Words”

Thirty years into her recording career, the Grammy Award–winning artist Shirley Caesar showed no signs of slowing down. In 1988, Caesar returned to her traditional gospel roots with the release of her critically acclaimed record, Live … in Chicago, which dominated the gospel charts for nearly eight months. It featured the hit single “Hold My Mule,” a sermonette centered on the fictive character (p.66) Shouting John, an eighty-six-year-old farmer who, in the words of Caesar, had joined “a dead church” controlled by ministers who frowned upon his expressive style of worship. To no avail, church leaders had repeatedly attempted to subdue John during his extended “praise breaks” by grabbing his limbs or forcing him to return to his seat. Their efforts always failed miserably. Frustrated by John’s refusal to discipline his religious fervor, a small group of church officials traveled to the elder’s home to chastise him for his behavior. Upon their arrival, they find John (“and a beat-up old mule”) plowing in the field. The proud farmer approaches his guests and then listens to their complaints. Showing no compassion for the elder, the church leaders deliver an ultimatum to John: “If you don’t stop shouting, if you don’t stop dancing, we’re going to put you out of our church.”1 John’s demonstrative religiosity had crossed a dangerous line.

If church officials expected John to give in to their demands after their threat of disfellowship, they were in for a major disappointment. When granted the opportunity to speak, John details his many blessings: his ownership of land, his good health, and his trouble-free children. “Not one time have I been to the courthouse,” he proudly informs his guests; “not one time have I been to the cemetery. But you don’t want me to dance in your church?” The act of recounting his blessings leads John to make the following declaration to the delegation: “Well put me out, I can’t hold my peace.”2 A spiritually ecstatic John then proceeds to shout and dance all over his property.

On this popular sermonette, which decades after its release still plays on gospel radio stations across the country, Shirley Caesar demonstrates both her unrivaled skills as a storyteller and her ability to capture the class tensions gripping black America during the post–civil rights era. She also gives voice to older black women and men still tied to the economies and cultural rhythms of the rural South. Caesar’s attentiveness to the cultural richness and diversity of black America combined with her singularity as a performer and songwriter have enabled her to connect with multiple generations of gospel fans. One would be hard-pressed to find a gospel artist who has enjoyed her level of success for a longer period of time. First working with the famous Caravans from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, then striking out on her own to become one of gospel music’s most successful performers, Caesar boasts an incredibly impressive discography that captures her remarkable range as an artist. Her hits include sermonettes (“Don’t Throw Your Mama Away,” “Praying Slave Lady,” and “Hold My Mule”), traditional hymns (“Don’t Be Afraid” and “Jordan River”), soulful tunes (“Put Your Hand in the Hand”), and country ballads (“No Charge”). Her career is a marvel, and quite frankly trying to convey the brilliance of her artistry can be frustratingly difficult—not just because of her prodigious output but also because of the diversity of her work. Soul, funk, disco, and country—all of these genres have seeped into her music at one time or another. As a recording artist, (p.67) Caesar has been at the cutting edge of both traditional and contemporary gospel music, refusing to allow anyone or anything to stifle her creativity.

Onstage, Caesar has also been in the vanguard of the art form, dazzling fans and critics alike with her legendary live performances. In her prime, her concerts featured spirited preaching, extended “praise breaks” during which she danced across the stage or down the aisles, and reworked versions of her most popular songs and sermonettes that captured her gift of improvisation. “I like to compare Shirley’s performance to the well-known structure of a short story,” writes Brooksie Eugene Harrington. “She gives you the introduction, the rising action, the climax, and the falling action. … Shirley knows what she is doing, and … she does it in such a meticulous manner that she carries her audience right along with the flow of the waters as she reaches the zenith of her concert.”3 Caesar’s mastery as a performer was the by-product of her brilliant fusion of various traditions, modalities, and styles. One tradition was the black sermonic tradition. The “old-time Negro preacher,” James Weldon Johnson writes in his classic 1927 text, God’s Trombones,

was a master of all the modes of eloquence. He often possessed a voice that was a marvelous instrument, a voice he could modulate from a sepulchral whisper to a crashing thunder clap. His discourse was generally kept at a high pitch of fervency, but occasionally he dropped into colloquialisms and, less often, into humor. He preached a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure-enough heaven and a red-hot hell. His imagination was bold and unfettered. He had the power to sweep his hearers before him; and so himself was often swept away. At such times his language was not prose but poetry.4

Like the classic black preachers before her, Caesar transformed her sermonettes, particularly tunes like “Praying Slave Lady” and “Hold My Mule,” into high art.

None of Caesar’s success was by chance. Every move was a calculated one. Upon her departure from the Caravans in 1966, she signed with House of Beauty (HOB) Records. HOB and Caesar’s partnership yielded some of her biggest hits and most critically acclaimed recordings. Then in 1977, the singer signed with Roadshow, a small secular label whose roster included the bands Enchantment and B. T. Express. Three years later, Caesar inked a deal with the Christian entertainment powerhouse Word Records, which for the first twenty-five years of its existence confined itself primarily to the white Christian market. As a testament to her commercial appeal, Caesar was high on the priority list of all three companies. Word, Roadshow, and HOB envisioned Caesar as a transcendent artist who could help them break into new markets and increase their profit margins considerably. Moreover, label executives regarded Caesar as a versatile performer whose expansive talent allowed her to thrive in a variety of musical settings. Such was the case in the early 1980s, when Word paired Caesar (p.68) with country producer Tony Brown for her first three records on the label. Her Nashville sessions included some of the industry’s most respected musicians and were carefully planned to generate the most commercially viable product. These sessions were radically different from those during her earlier days with the Caravans. “When I recorded with the Caravans,” Caesar remembered, “the production budgets were always very meager. There weren’t any allocations to hire musicians. Often we borrowed musicians from local churches. At best we had a drummer, a bass, a lead guitarist, and an organ player. We couldn’t afford to pay for studio time for more than one day, so we would record ten to twelve songs in one session. If we made mistakes, the producer overlooked them. If the altos came in late or the sopranos didn’t sing the song as rehearsed, it was ignored because the budget would not allow rerecording.”5

With more than six decades of experience as a gospel singer and traveling evangelist, Caesar has witnessed, contributed to, and benefited from some of the major transformations within the Christian music industry. Thus, tracing the arc of her career provides significant insight into a variety of issues, including but not limited to the growing impact of funk and soul music on the gospel sound, the efforts of major white Christian labels to claim a bigger share of the black gospel market, the rise of Nashville as an important geographical center of the black gospel industry, and the struggle of African American religious artists to address some of the major political and social problems affecting their local communities and the larger world. As one of the gospel industry’s most popular performers, Caesar used her platform to advance the art form and build what religious studies scholar Cheryl Sanders calls “prophetic community”: the “exercising of one’s individual gifts of ministry and leadership toward the end of empowering congregations to hear the voice of God and speak the word of God in conversation with the deepest concerns of the people and communities one is called to serve.”6

In explaining her political activism, particularly her decision to run for a seat on the city council in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina, in 1987, Caesar noted, “I not only care about what happens inside the church; I’m equally concerned about what happens in society at large. In my opinion, if the church doesn’t influence society, it has failed to live out God’s commission.”7 With this goal in mind, Caesar campaigned on a platform emphasizing full employment, quality housing for low-income residents, improvements to the downtown area without sacrificing the needs of the black poor, environmental protections, and quality public schools. As Caesar ventured into new territory in her public life, her campaign was hardly surprising to gospel fans and industry insiders who had followed her career. The socially engaged artist had never shied away from political issues and themes in her music, as Cheryl Gilkes perceptively notes in her analysis:

(p.69) Not only does Shirley Caesar make beautiful music, for which she reaps accolades and awards, but also her music, much of which she composes, provides an important narrative or “thick description” of the situations of black people in America and a prophetic critique of the social conditions that challenge black and poor people. Alongside of this description and critique, Shirley Caesar also challenges black people’s treatment of one another, particularly across class lines; in the process she illustrates the complexities and complications of class and family issues among black people. Throughout her career, her music has proclaimed God’s option for the poor and qualifies as a liberationist discourse.8

Caesar provided a model for other women navigating the complex gender politics of both the music industry and the African American church. Her public persona ranged from pious woman mindful of the gender proscriptions of her Holiness background to civic-minded activist committed to improving the lives of the most disadvantaged, particularly those from her hometown of Durham. In her interviews, which in the early part of her career often focused on her single status (Caesar did not marry until her late thirties), she presented herself as somewhat

Hold My MuleShirley Caesar and the Gospel of the New South

Figure 8. Shirley Caesar performing in Gospel, a 1983 documentary film directed by David Leivick and Frederick A. Ritzenberg.

Photo courtesy of Photofest.

(p.70) of a traditionalist on gender issues. “I don’t consider myself a liberated woman,” the singer told an Ebony reporter in 1977. “If I had a man, I would be dependent on him.” In that same interview, however, she shared with readers her deep love for her work, her financial autonomy, her extensive community involvement, and her general contentment with her single status.9 Though she distanced herself from certain labels—as did many other African American women at the time—she was very much in control of her personal and professional life.10 To prove this point and perhaps provide a visual counterpoint to a few of Caesar’s statements, Ebony included an image of Caesar confidently occupying the driver’s seat of her custom-made tour bus, which she occasionally drove when on the road with her band. Self-made and self-fashioned, Caesar demanded that her art and her life be understood on no one’s terms but her own. This was about control, but it was also about self-preservation.

The Parable of My Being: Coming of Age in Durham

“The course of my life cannot be explained in simple human terms,” Caesar once wrote. “From the beginning I believe I was destined to fulfill God’s purpose and plan for my existence. There is no other explanation. With so much working against me—a semi-invalid mother, a deceased father, low-self-esteem resulting from having been called degrading names as a child, and living in a society plagued by racism, sexism, and segregation—I wasn’t supposed to make it.” Success, let alone superstardom, was not in the cards—so she assumed. “I should have never escaped the impoverishment that surrounded me. But by God’s mercy I did. So here I am still running, still singing, still preaching.”11

The tenth of twelve children, Shirley Ann Caesar was born in 1938 to James and Hallie Caesar in Durham, North Carolina. The Caesars lived in a modest house on Chautauqua Avenue, located in the city’s historic Hayti neighborhood.12 Southwest of downtown, Hayti was the residential, commercial, and cultural center of black Durham. By the time of Shirley Caesar’s birth, Hayti was well known among African Americans not just in North Carolina but throughout the nation. As one historian explains, the district enjoyed a “national reputation as a bustling neighborhood with active black commerce, political activism, higher education, and entertainment. Separated from Durham’s downtown by unsightly coal yards and railroad tracks, Hayti’s residents met most of their needs along the main thoroughfares of their neighborhood. There black florists, pharmacists, auto mechanics, barbers, dry cleaners, grocers, tailors, restaurateurs, hoteliers, morticians, and other businesses catered to them.”13 Not too far from Hayti, several prominent black businesses, including John Merrick’s North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company and Richard Fitzgerald and James Shepard’s Mechanics (p.71) and Farmers Bank, flourished on Parrish Street. With such bustling commercial activity, Durham was regarded by some African Americans as the “Capital of the Black Bourgeoisie.” “It is a city of fine homes, exquisite churches, and middle-class respectability,” the noted sociologist E. Franklin Frazier opined in his essay for Alain Locke’s seminal anthology The New Negro. “It is not the place where men write and dream; but a place where black men calculate and work. No longer can men say that the Negro is lazy and shiftless and a consumer. He has gone to work. He is a producer. He is respectable. He has a middle class.”14

The Bull City most certainly had a visible black middle class; however, the vast majority of African Americans in Durham were working-class people. Like many African Americans in the Hayti district, Shirley Caesar’s parents worked as tobacco stemmers at Liggett and Myers. Hallie and Jim Caesar brought with them a fair amount of experience in the tobacco industry. A native of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Hallie Caesar had previously worked at R. J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem, where she met her future husband, Jim. The couple fell in love, married in 1923, and relocated to Durham three years later. “I got a job in the tobacco factory,” Hallie Caesar remembered, “and worked there for thirteen years full-time. … The factories paid a little more here in Durham. When we came here, I thought 8 cents a pound was great, because in Winston we would get 5 cents and 6 cents a pound.” Changes in the industry, particularly the phasing out of stemmers, coupled with health issues, compelled Hallie Caesar to leave Liggett in 1939. “When I left the factory, I went home. Raising the children was a full-time job.”15

Together with her husband, Hallie Caesar instilled within her children the values of hard work and self-respect. The couple also stressed the importance of family and God. “In our family,” Shirley Caesar remembered, “attending church was not an option—it was an obligation.”16 The family first belonged to Fisher Memorial United Holy Church and then later joined Mount Calvary Holy Church, which was pastored by Frizelle Yelverton. Under the leadership of Yelverton, young Shirley learned the major tenets of the Mount Calvary Holy Church of America, which on the eve of the Great Depression splintered away from the United Holy Church of America.17 The Mount Calvary denomination’s founder and first bishop was Brumfield Johnson, a North Carolina native who in 1928 held a series of revivals in Winston-Salem. These revivals led to the formation of Mount Calvary Holy Church of America, which had a strong base in North Carolina. Mount Calvary placed heavy emphasis on sanctification, pious living, and Pentecostal Holy Spirit baptism—though it did not promote speaking in tongues as the only evidence of spirit indwelling. Such teachings would be an important anchor in the religious life of Shirley Caesar.

Another significant anchor for her was gospel music: “Gospel music has always been a viable part of my life. It was the first music I heard as an infant, and the (p.72) only music that was sung in our household. My mother could always be heard humming a song of praise or singing a hymn.”18 The Caesar children’s love for gospel came not just from their mother but from their father as well. Jim Caesar was one of the most respected gospel singers in North Carolina. He, along with three other workers employed at Liggett and Myers, created the Just Come Four Quartet, a talented group that deepened the local community’s appreciation for quartet music. “Quartet singing wasn’t too popular when I first came to Durham,” Hallie Caesar recalled, “but later on there was a lot of them out there.” Among the most popular was the Just Come Four Quartet, which thrived on Jim Caesar’s powerful singing. “Throughout the Carolinas and southern states,” Shirley Caesar proudly boasted, “he was noted for his anointed and energetic style of singing. … I’m told he could electrify and magnetize an audience like no one else could.”19 When not attending Mount Calvary or working at Liggett and Myers, Jim Caesar toured with his group, spreading the gospel and earning additional money to support his large family.

The Caesar family suffered a major blow when Jim died unexpectedly in 1945. “My father’s sudden death meant intense economic hardship for the family,” Caesar somberly recounted. “My mother, who was a semi-invalid, did the very best to provide for us. Although physically challenged, she was by no means a weak lady. But her handicapped foot made it impossible for her to work in a full-time job. Thankfully, as my brothers and sisters grew older they got jobs to help supplement our income. We struggled but at least we struggled together as a family.”20

Financial hardships notwithstanding, Caesar excelled in the classroom and thrived in Durham’s culturally rich black community. One of her elementary teachers, Charlie T. Roach, remembered Caesar as a stellar student and exceptional leader. “I met Shirley in 1950 when she was 11 years old as my sixth-grade student in a class of 34 at W. G. Pearson Elementary School. She was well-mannered, sweet disposition, charming personality, disciplined, and a pleasure to teach.” Years after teaching Caesar, Roach still remembered, quite vividly, her contributions to his class’s daily devotion period. “We practiced 15 minutes morning devotion daily before class time. The class rotated leadership alphabetically. The students enjoyed Shirley’s leadership so much that they voted her to lead daily. Several teachers from other classes stood at our door in the hallway to hear Shirley sing. … They knew she was for real!!!”21

School was not the only place where Caesar showed great promise as a vocalist. Heavily involved at Mount Calvary, she participated in the junior choir and worked hard to attract the attention of the congregation: “I made sure my contralto voice was heard loud and clear.” On those special occasions when she had a solo, Caesar performed with an intensity that belied her age. “I sang as though my very life depended on the projection of that song.”22 Caesar’s talents (p.73) soon caught the attention of gospel lovers outside her church. With her mother’s permission, “Baby Shirley,” as she was billed on concert advertisements, started traveling with local ministers and singers, most notably Leroy Johnson and Thelma Bumpass and the Royalettes.

Traveling on the road cut into Caesar’s study time, but her grades at Hillside High were strong enough to enroll at nearby North Carolina Central College. Founded in 1909 by Dr. James Edward Shepard, North Carolina Central emerged from its modest beginnings as the National Religious Training School to become one of the shining intellectual gems of the Tar Heel State. Economic hardships plagued the school during its early years, but in 1923 its fortunes improved when it became a state institution and changed its name to Durham State Normal School. Led by Shepard until his death in 1948, the school continued to grow under the leadership of its second president, Dr. Alfonso Elder. Like others from her neighborhood, Caesar looked at the college with great pride and felt it a privilege to attend the historically black institution.

This did not mean that her time at Central was easy. Her family’s strained financial situation along with her passion for gospel music compounded the typical challenges of college life. On the eve of her sophomore year, Caesar pondered whether to remain at Central or devote herself fully to pursuing her gospel dreams. As had always been the case for Caesar, her family’s limited resources concerned her greatly. “I knew my mother didn’t have the money to pay for my tuition or buy my books and beyond that I knew that, given our financial situation, the chance of me completing college was almost nonexistent.”23 Caesar’s decision regarding school became a lot easier after she attended a concert in Kinston, where she secured an unconventional audition with Albertina Walker’s Caravans.

Sweeping the City: Shirley Caesar and the Caravans

A major force in the gospel world, the Caravans had evolved from their roots in Robert Anderson’s Good Shepherd Singers to become one of the industry’s most beloved groups. Vocally, the Caravans were in a league of their own. “As an ensemble,” Robert Marovich explains, “the Caravans pounced on vocal lines with church-wrecking power and precision, filling each lyric line and the pause between them with intense emotional conviction. Their tight, intense harmonies, dynamic ebbs and flows, and staccato attack of the verses were straight out of the church.”24 The group thrived under the leadership of Albertina Walker, who brought a host of talented singers and musicians to the group: Bessie and Gloria Griffin, Johneron Davis, Cassietta George, Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews, James Herndon, James Cleveland, and Shirley Caesar.

(p.74) An avid fan of the Caravans, Caesar was determined to capture Walker’s attention during one of the group’s visits to North Carolina. Since she wasn’t on the official program, she arranged for someone to request “a solo from Shirley Caesar.” When the request was made, Caesar rushed to the stage and delivered a rousing performance that convinced Walker to add the talented youngster to the group.

Caesar’s impact on the Caravans was immediate and profound. On such classic tunes as “I Won’t Be Back,” “No Coward Soldier,” “I Feel Good,” and “A Place Like That,” she mesmerized listeners with her signature contralto, sermonic phrasing, and commanding delivery. Her talent was boundless. Not just an amazing vocalist, Caesar was also a first-rate entertainer who wowed concertgoers with her passionate preaching and dancing. Moving across the stage and down the aisles, Caesar brought the spiritual energy and worship style of her Holiness church to every performance. “I was full of energy in those days. Backstage in the Apollo, I could run all of the way up all of those stairs and in 30 seconds be on the top floor. I was so active.” Moreover, Caesar continued, “I was just very, very charismatic.”25

Caesar loved performing but found the rigors of touring exhausting. “Those years with the Caravans weren’t always easy ones. The schedules we kept and the conditions under which we traveled were very trying. We would pack our bags and all six of us would pile into our Cadillac, sometimes traveling all day to get to a concert that night.”26 Caesar also had to battle unwelcomed advances from male suitors, shady concert promoters who failed to pay performers, and racist Jim Crow laws and customs that made travel problematic for African American entertainers. Despite these difficulties, Caesar appreciated her time with the group. “The Caravans were my mentors, my sisters, my friends, and my family. We disagreed some, cried some, laughed a lot, and poured out our hearts on stage and in churches for the glory of God. I learned from them all and believe even today that I sing a little like each of them. I would like to think that I have a little bit of their styles in my music.”27

Wanting greater control over her time, her art, and her ministry, Caesar left the Caravans in 1966 and embarked on a solo career. “On my own, I now had the flexibility to coordinate the scheduling of my concerts around my revival dates. Having that freedom was liberating. I no longer felt as if I was failing the Lord.”28

After carefully weighing her options, Caesar signed with the Scepter-owned label House of Beauty Records. As part of HOB’s recruiting efforts, the label offered Caesar a $4,000 signing bonus and pledged to do everything to advance her solo career. Under the direction of John Bowden, HOB aspired to increase its share of the gospel market by signing acts like the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Gospel Harmonettes, the Swan Silvertones, and Caesar.29

(p.75) My Testimony: Shirley Caesar’s Tenure with HOB Records

Departing a group as popular as the Caravans carried certain risks, but Caesar’s first solo outing, I’ll Go, proved she was up to the challenge. Anchored by Caesar’s stunning contralto and the powerful background vocals of the Institutional Radio Choir of Brooklyn, the music on I’ll Go reflected the singer’s desire to maintain her Caravans audience as well as to reach new markets. Even though Caesar had been in the gospel industry for nearly a decade, I’ll Go provided her fans with their first glimpse of the person behind the artist. On “Choose Ye This Day” and the title track, “I’ll Go,” Caesar recounts her family’s history, her childhood years, and her father’s death at an early age. In both songs, she establishes herself as a battle-tested believer. Throughout her career, Caesar would recount her family’s encounters with death and economic hardship as a way to situate herself within the community of the socially disadvantaged as well as to testify to God’s deliverance. Another important hallmark of Caesar’s music appears on I’ll Go: her engagement with larger social issues. “Battle Field” and “Choose Ye This Day” reference the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle, particularly state-sanctioned violence against African American children in political hotbeds like Birmingham.

And then there was “Rapture,” a hypnotizing soul number that showcased Caesar’s versatility as a vocalist. Though Caesar was unequivocal in her commitment to singing gospel, her performance on “Rapture” confirmed, for many, her potential for great success if she ever decided to enter the pop world.

While willing to engage contemporary sounds and issues, Caesar remained connected to her past, particularly her North Carolina roots. Perhaps nowhere was this connection more apparent than on the record’s most powerful cut, “Don’t Be Afraid.” Caesar’s majestic voice captures the religiosity, human warmth, and intimacy of the black church. It conjures up memories of not just the sounds but also the gestures, sights, and smells of Sunday morning.

To reinforce Caesar’s deep connection to the church and her Holiness roots, the cover of I’ll Go featured a picture of the singer in a choir robe. Eyes closed and hands lifted toward heaven, Caesar positions herself as God’s servant rather than gospel music entertainer. The image of Caesar was understated, but the music was certainly not. Well aware of the naysayers who questioned the wisdom of her departure from the Caravans, Caesar was happy with the results of her first album. “To me, it was reaffirmation that God indeed keeps His promises.”30

Caesar’s second outing for HOB, My Testimony, was equally impressive. It included sermonettes, up-tempo shout songs, and soul-stirring ballads. Caesar composed seven of the twelve songs on the record, which also featured compositions (p.76) from Cassietta George and James Cleveland. The highlight of the session was her unforgettable performance on “Tear Your Kingdom Down,” a haunting number that bears a striking resemblance to “Don’t Be Afraid.”31 Singing with great fervor and conviction, Caesar declares war on the devil in no uncertain terms.

Wanting to build on Caesar’s momentum, HOB flooded the gospel market with records and singles from the talented songstress. Within months of the appearance of My Testimony, the label released Jordan River, a record whose title cut adopted the minimalist but powerful approach of “Tear Your Kingdom Down” and “Don’t Be Afraid.”

Even greater success followed Caesar in 1969 when she released “Don’t Drive Your Mama Away,” a brilliant sermonette that combined masterful storytelling with strident class critique. “Don’t Drive Your Mama Away” tells the story of a mother who has two sons with radically different life trajectories. One son performs well in school, vows to take care of his mother, and eventually becomes a doctor. The other son underperforms in the classroom as a child, has numerous run-ins with the law, and causes his mother much heartache. True to his childhood promise to provide for his family, the “good son” invites his mother to move in with his wife (a schoolteacher) and children and enjoy the benefits of their stable, upper-middle-class life. However, trouble emerges when the daughter-in-law complains about what she perceives as her mother-in-law’s negative influence on the children, particularly her country manners and “bad grammar.” Siding with his wife, the son informs his mother of his intention to relocate her to a senior citizens’ home. En route to the “old folks home,” the family runs into the other son, who expresses dismay at the situation and then offers to bring his mother to his house. Though the living accommodations of the “no-good son” pale in comparison to those of his more accomplished sibling, the mother prefers this arrangement to the other possibility: spending her final days among strangers. The sermonette ends on a somewhat triumphant note as the troubled child—who through this kind gesture has now found redemption—and the grateful mother journey down the road toward their new life together.32 An instant hit, “Don’t Drive Your Mama Away” resonated with thousands of African Americans who appreciated Caesar’s deft storytelling, as well as her exploration of the class tensions within black communities. “Don’t Drive Your Mama Away” also cemented Caesar’s status as one of gospel’s premier entertainers.

On the road, Caesar generated even greater buzz with her powerful singing, spirited preaching, and joyful dancing.33 “I cannot do this dead and dry,” Caesar once remarked; “I got to move.”34 And move she did. Her live performances received rave reviews from the nation’s leading newspapers. Washington Post journalist Hollie West showered the singer with praise after her concert at Constitution Hall. Caesar, West marveled, “has the unusual capacity to transform a (p.77) concert hall into a church-like setting at a moment’s notice. … In her piercing contralto voice, she performs with the fervor of an evangelist as she preaches the message of her song.” The singer’s spitfire vocals, passionate preaching, and boundless energy left West spellbound. “Miss Caesar darts back and forth across a stage with such fury that it seems as if she might fall on her face at any time.” Fueling Caesar’s fire was not just the Holy Spirit but also the energy of her fans: “People were standing in the aisles, clapping their hands and dancing to her fiery rhythm.”35 A perfectionist who fully recognized that working women and men made up the backbone of her audience, she demanded nothing less than the best from her background singers and musicians. On those rare occasions when they missed a beat or played the wrong note, she’d chastise them with a disapproving glance or comment. Simply put, in terms of sheer energy and exactness, she was the closest thing the gospel world had to soul music’s greatest bandleader, James Brown.

Caesar’s commitment to her art was evident in the high quality of her live shows and her studio productions. A permanent fixture on gospel radio, Caesar won her first Grammy Award in 1971 for her soul-stirring hit “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” A year later, she released Get Up My Brother. Visually and sonically, Get Up My Brother underscores how the cultural politics of the Black Power movement reached far beyond those who identified or positioned themselves as cultural nationalists. The album’s cover featured a beautiful portrait of Caesar fashionably attired in a colorful dress. No longer wearing the drab choir robes of the I’ll Go era, Caesar had a look that reflected the popular styles of the 1970s. As was the case with many black artists, Caesar seemed to be targeting—or at least acknowledging—the soul brothers and sisters in black America.36

To tap into gospel’s expanding market, as well as the political energy of the times, Caesar also adopted a more contemporary sound on several of the album’s cuts, including the title song. With its soulful mix of organ, guitar, Rhodes piano, and drums, “Get Up My Brother” echoes some of the music found on Pastor T. L. Barrett’s 1971 record, Like a Ship … (without A Sail). The song has a strong Chicago soul vibe, as does Caesar’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s protest anthem “People Get Ready.”

A versatile artist who could change with the times yet maintain her individuality, Caesar willingly moved beyond her comfort zone to embrace new sounds, techniques, and marketing strategies. At the same time, she refused to abandon her older fans who didn’t like their gospel “too worldly.” In addition to the more soulful songs, Get Up My Brother featured two powerful traditional gospel cuts: “Teach Me Master” and “Nobody but You Lord.”

This balancing act continued over the next several years with the release of The Invitation, Be Careful of the Stones You Throw, Millennial Reign, and No Charge. These four records find Caesar pushing the sonic and lyrical boundaries of gospel. (p.78) One of her more intriguing turns was her foray into country music, a genre she was quite fond of. “I love listening to country music,” she readily admitted. In addition to covering Hank Williams’s classic “Be Careful of the Stones You Throw,” Caesar scored a major hit with the country song “No Charge,” taken from her 1975 album of the same name. “No Charge” relates the story of an exchange between a mother and a son. Written by Harlan Howard and recorded by Melba Montgomery in 1974, the song opens with the narrator describing a scene in which a young boy comes into the kitchen and hands his mother an itemized list of charges for his chores. The enterprising son has a price for everything, from washing the dishes to completing his homework. Taken aback by the son’s list, the mother responds with a recounting of her many responsibilities and sacrifices:

For the nine months I carried you, growing inside me, no charge For the nights I sat up with you, doctored you, prayed for you, no charge For the time and the tears and the costs through the years, no charge When you add it all up, the full cost of my love is no charge37

Like millions of Americans, Caesar adored Melba Montgomery’s version of the song. “It blew me away,” she later remembered. “I laid out in the living room on the floor, trying to sing it like a country singer. I couldn’t so I just did it my way and it turned out to be the biggest solo record I’ve ever recorded.”38

With her incredible range as an artist, Caesar played an important though largely overlooked role in the diversification of the gospel sound during the 1970s. Together with artists like Andraé Crouch, Rance Allen, and the Hawkins Family, Caesar stretched both the lyrical and sonic boundaries of gospel as she not only borrowed from other genres but also addressed larger societal issues.

A New Day: Caesar and Roadshow

Firmly established in her career, Caesar was not afraid to take chances and move in new directions with her sound. Such openness was necessary in an industry where label restructuring, buyouts, and shutdowns could derail the career of even the most successful artists. Few artists understood this more than the businessminded Caesar, who eventually switched from HOB to Roadshow Records: “The year 1975 proved to be a very pivotal one for me. It was the year my recording contract with Hob [HOB] Records ended, and I opted not to re-sign. By my own election, it was almost two years before I finally consented to sign with another label. I needed time to reflect and reevaluate my sense of direction. My primary purpose as a Christian and as a gospel singer has always been to reach as many people as possible with the message of Jesus, regardless of race, gender, demographic location, or socioeconomic status. At Hob Records I didn’t feel that purpose was being adequately accomplished.”39

(p.79) With the goal of expanding her base, she signed with Roadshow and began preparing for her next record. When Roadshow’s president, Fred Frank, and producer Michael Stokes sent Caesar the rhythm tracks to possible songs for her first recording session with the company, the gospel singer assumed she had received the wrong music. “Well, when I got the tape,” Caesar recalled, “I said ‘wow, this is gutbucket rock and roll! I can’t do this.’” Caesar had never been beholden to one particular style, but these tracks were more experimental than her previous material. Losing her fan base and alienating gospel radio programmers were real possibilities in an industry with many artists who fell victim to the crossover chase. And yet, Caesar recognized the need to grow as an artist. “It was a question of knowing where I’d been and then thinking about where I was going. What was perhaps the most important part of my decision about the album was understanding that I was still singing gospel. There was no question of me suddenly becoming a rock/R&B performer!”40

Not everyone was so certain after listening to First Lady. The music ranged from the disco-tinged “Just a Talk” to the more traditional “Faded Rose” to her funky cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America.” “If someone didn’t tell you it was a gospel album or you didn’t listen carefully, you would never know,” wrote M. J. Musik of the New York Amsterdam News. “There’s disco in ‘Jesus Is Coming’ and funk in ‘Just a Talk.’” All serious music listeners, he insisted, needed to engage the record. “Whether you like gospel music or not, you’ll love Shirley Caesar’s latest album.”41 Along with generating strong reviews, the album sold more than 200,000 copies, an impressive mark for a gospel recording.

Enthused about the results, Roadshow devoted tremendous money and time into marketing her follow-up release, From the Heart. With direction from her producer Michael Stokes, primarily known for his work with the soul group Enchantment, Caesar sampled broadly from the contemporary music scene. The singer offered a soulful version of Diana Ross’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” gave a nod to the lush sounds of Philadelphia International with “He’s Got a Love,” and masterfully rode the funky grooves of “Message to the People” and “Heavenly Father.”

The material was strong, but Caesar was never comfortable with Roadshow. In addition to feeling as if some of the music was “overproduced,” Caesar found the company’s crossover efforts unsuccessful, by which she meant not so much lackluster sales (the album had strong sales) but failure to gain traction in the pop market. Despite the company’s business strategy and her new sound, Caesar’s audience remained predominantly gospel: “While at Roadshow I learned a valuable lesson. Innovative marketing strategies and extensive advertising campaigns are no guarantee that you will expand your market share, particularly if the market you are trying to penetrate is not ready for what you are trying to present.”42

(p.80) New Directions with Word Records

These lessons weighed on Caesar’s mind after Roadshow’s collapse in 1980 made her one of gospel music’s most coveted free agents. Once again, she faced the challenge of deciding which company could best advance her career without compromising the integrity of her musical ministry. Ultimately, she decided on Word Records, the biggest label in the Christian entertainment industry. Founded in the early 1950s by Jarrell McCracken, the Waco, Texas–based company had been instrumental in the growth of contemporary Christian music through its record-of-the-month club, its distribution deals with Light and Solid Rock Records, and its impressive roster of artists, including the platinum-selling star Amy Grant.43 To diversify its market, the label sought to add established African American artists to its roster. Toward this goal, Word formed a black division and appointed as its head gospel industry veteran James Bullard, who had previously worked with Caesar at Roadshow. Impressed by Bullard’s track record, Word had aggressively courted the ambitious executive. “They wanted to know if I could make Word number one in black Gospel music,” Bullard remembered. “Stan Moser, along with Roland Lundy, Dan Johnson and others at Word[,] said if I was willing to head the new division, they would make the commitment to back it all the way.” Hiring Bullard proved a wise decision as he exceeded the company’s expectations: “The first eight months we did what Stan projected for the first three years.”44 One important factor in Bullard’s success was the company’s new signee, Shirley Caesar.

Not long after Caesar’s signing, Word sought the services of Tony Brown, who produced Caesar’s first three albums for the label. A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Brown had traveled with his family’s gospel group as a child, singing and playing the piano. Short stints with the Stamps Quartet and the Oak Ridge Boys prepared him for his biggest gig: pianist for Elvis Presley’s gospel group the Voice. After Presley’s death in 1977, Brown linked up with Emmylou Harris as he sharpened his musical skills.

Working out of Nashville’s legendary Quadrafonic Sound Studios, located in the heart of Music Row, Brown and Caesar blended their distinctive musical talents to create a satisfying mix of New South gospel. The end result was one of the best records of Caesar’s career: Rejoice, which was released on Word’s subsidiary imprint Myrrh.

The nine-song set opens with the upbeat “Whisper a Prayer,” a Caesar-penned tune whose hard-knocking groove draws from country, R&B, and disco. There’s a hunger, a palpable urgency, in Caesar’s singing—something one might not necessarily expect in a seasoned veteran who had been on the top of the charts for more than twenty years. Her intensity continues on Aaron Wilburn’s “Satan, (p.81) You’re a Liar,” a striking tune featuring clashing guitars, drums, and keyboards. Infused with the rhythms of southern rock and the melodrama of country pop, “Satan” pushes Caesar out of her vocal comfort zone.

If you were combing through Caesar’s discography for evidence of her musical range, then “Satan” would probably be among your first choices. Not too far behind would be another tune on Rejoice: Caesar’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Offering her traditional serving of spitfire extemporizations and nuanced phrasing, Caesar exhorts her listeners to come to the side of the Lord.

Later on the record, Caesar rips through “It’s in the Book,” a bouncy number from the songwriting team of J. L. Wallace, Ken Bell, and Terry Skinner. A dance tune immersed in disco beats, hillbilly rhythms, and light funk, “It’s in the Book” lays to rest any doubts about the musical chemistry between Caesar and her Nashville rhythm section. The arrangements are complex, soulful, and swinging. As the drummer and bassist lay down the pulsating groove, Caesar’s voice functions as an additional percussive instrument, injecting the song with greater rhythmic complexity.

Caesar’s debut for Word was a triumph both for the artist and for the record company. Released in late 1980, Rejoice netted impressive sales in the gospel market and had a strong presence on Christian radio. The forty-two-year-old Caesar remained one of the most innovative artists in gospel. Her rendezvous with Nashville country was as bold and fresh as the gospel-funk hybrids emerging from the Clark Sisters and the Winans.

Impressed by Caesar’s ability to adapt to the changing times, music journalists gave her Word material extremely high marks. In his enthusiastic review of 1983’s Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name, Richard Harrington hailed Caesar as “one of the great black singers of our time.” Throughout the album, Harrington marveled, “her singing is superb, riding freely over thumping bass lines and earthy choruses alike. Caesar can twist, compress or enhance a lyric a dozen ways without abandoning her central message of affirmation, strength, and enduring faith.”45

Caesar’s first three albums for Myrrh, Rejoice, Go, and Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name, elicited great excitement among fans anxious to see Caesar perform her new material live. “With the release of each of those albums,” Caesar later reflected, “I found myself on the road even more. Pastors, promoters, and organizations from all around the country were constantly calling me and the Caesar Singers to come either for concerts or revivals. We were performing in excess of one hundred and fifty concerts per year.”46

One admirer of Caesar’s soul-inspired gospel was Lou Rawls, who frequently invited her to perform for his United Negro College Fund telethon. No stranger to Caesar’s mammoth talent, Rawls had known Caesar since her days with the Caravans and regarded her as one of the most brilliant performers of any genre:

(p.82) I mean when this woman comes out to perform, you can feel the electricity in the room. It’s like being in one of those old Baptist churches; you know, where the minister shifts gears on you. You see she does that. She does that in her music. … The people that have never heard Shirley Caesar and don’t know who Shirley Caesar is when they do hear her and see her—they never forget this woman, because this woman strikes you. POW! She hits you right in the heart, because she’s sincere and she means what she’s doing.47

Indeed, Caesar’s music connected with people in deep and meaningful ways.

Despite her national profile and extensive tour schedule, Caesar remained firmly grounded in the local politics and cultural activities of her hometown of Durham. Every year, she sponsored the annual Shirley Caesar Evangelistic Crusade, a weeklong event that featured Caesar and other gospel stars. She also hosted a weekly radio show on WSRC that was broadcast throughout the Raleigh-Durham area.

Carving out time to record new material was not easy, but she managed to complete three new albums between 1984 and 1987: Sailin’, Celebration, and Christmasing. Word also released her greatest hits compilation, Her Very Best. During this time, Caesar collected three additional Grammy Awards, one for the song “Martin,” a tribute to the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and two for “Sailin’,” her duet with labelmate Al Green. She also returned to

Hold My MuleShirley Caesar and the Gospel of the New South

Figure 9. Street sign commemorating Shirley Caesar in Durham, North Carolina.

Photo by author.

(p.83) college and earned her degree in business administration with a minor in religion from Shaw University in 1984. Though she never doubted the wisdom of her decision to leave North Carolina Central for a career with the Caravans, Caesar felt incomplete without a college degree. Her desire to finish her education was connected to another passion: politics. Talking and singing about the problems of the world were not enough. She wanted to put herself in a position to effect real, structural change in Durham.

Gotta Serve Somebody: Caesar’s Civic Activities in Post–Civil Rights Durham

Three years after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Shaw, Caesar ran for a seat on Durham’s city council. Noting that she wanted to “focus on the needy, not the greedy,” she launched a platform centered around fair housing, programs for the elderly, solving the problem of homelessness, and improving the public school system. The singer received endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the People’s Alliance, and the Durham Voters Alliance. Despite her lack of formal political experience, Caesar won an at-large seat, adding councilwoman to her long list of achievements. Election day was a surreal experience for the Durham native. “As the numbers were tallied in my favor, I kept hugging my friends, clapping my hands, and jumping up and down. When all of the precinct results were in, I couldn’t believe it. I had won! I couldn’t believe we had accomplished what the vote was indicating. I had won election in a southern city by 68 percent of the vote. In fact, African Americans filled all three at-large seats on the council.”48

After her election, Caesar set her sights on ensuring the city’s aggressive urban redevelopment plans addressed the concerns and needs of low-income African American families. “My job is to make sure we focus on affordable housing and not try to push the highest priced housing on people who cannot afford it. We are one with the philosophy of growth but not at the expense of our neighborhoods.”49 In her mind, her civic and religious duties were inextricably linked: “I believe in serving God by serving others.” More specifically, she had a deep commitment to Durham. “Durham is where it’s at,” she once told a local reporter; “this is home.”50 Of course, “home” had experienced great change during the post–civil rights period.

Jim Crow segregation had been dismantled, but racial and economic inequality remained a reality for many African Americans in the Bull City. As historian Jean Bradley Anderson notes, “In the waning decades of the century, a confluence of events and trends enormously increased the complexity of social problems in Durham: urban renewal had displaced many poor families and destroyed low-cost housing; the Vietnam War had left many veterans physically or mentally ill, (p.84) often addicted to alcohol and drugs, and consequently often homeless.” Like other cities across the nation, Durham also felt the sting of deindustrialization. According to Anderson, “The decline of traditional blue-collar jobs in tobacco factories and cotton mills as the economy shifted to biomedical and other research left hundreds of workers jobless and unable to fill jobs requiring an educated and skilled workforce.”51 These problems did not escape the notice of Caesar, who through her political and civic activities hoped to transform the city. Her commitment to the less fortunate won her the respect of thousands of local people. “Shirley is a glorious person in our community,” raved one Durham resident.52

Live … in Chicago: The Making of a Gospel Classic and the Rebirth of a Gospel Legend

Even with her growing political commitments, Caesar remained a force in the gospel world. Her 1988 release, Live … in Chicago, topped the gospel charts from June 18, 1988, to late February 1989. The record featured one of gospel’s hottest acts: Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers. A long admirer of the group, Caesar had collaborated with the “Tommies” in the 1970s and renewed her relationship with the choir in 1987, when she returned to Chicago. Instead of working within the confines of the studio, as she had done for much of her tenure with Word, Caesar opted for a live recording at Brunson’s Christ Tabernacle Baptist Church. The church was located on North Central Avenue in the heart of a black community on Chicago’s west side. If Caesar was looking for an alternative to the controlled, sometimes sterile atmosphere of the studio, Christ Tabernacle, with its deep connection to the surrounding community, was the ideal place.

The live recording provided a much-needed return of sorts for Caesar. Though they hardly qualified as bad records, her last two outings with Word lacked the innovation and fire of her previous material. Creatively, she was at a standstill. And no one recognized this more than Caesar. “Even though I was winning Grammy Awards and Doves and other accolades, I must admit there was a feeling of discontentment in my spirit. I kept remembering the early years of my career when I would sing a capella—songs like ‘Peter, Don’t Be Afraid,’ ‘Teach Me Master, Teach Me,’ and ‘Satan, We’re Going to Tear Your Kingdom Down’—and I missed that old traditional gospel sound. And I believed that many of my older listeners did too.”53

Working with the Thompson Community Singers provided Caesar with the opportunity to reach a younger fan base, as well as to move outside the studio. “I need to get back to my roots,” Caesar pleaded with her record company. “Let me record live with a choir, let me minister, let me be me.”54 In Caesar’s view, her music with Word had become too slick, too refined, too predictable. “I have got to be free to improvise, to be creative. That is what I do best. Anything that moves (p.85) me away from that hurts me more than it helps.”55 Though Caesar presented this record as a return to her roots in traditional gospel, this was the sound of black sacred music moving into the twenty-first century.

On the record’s first track, “Never,” Caesar floats effortlessly through her verses, then powers through the song’s chorus. As the singer testifies to God’s faithfulness, she tosses out a series of lines familiar to most gospel listeners: “He’ll be your friend, when you’re friendless, water, when you thirsty, bread, when you’re hungry.” With ample support from the Tommies, Caesar works the crowd with her fiery extemporizations. “He’s a friend,” she clarifies to the audience, “a real friend, he’ll walk with you, he’ll talk with you, he’ll live in you, he’ll move in you.”56

Lowering the pace but not the intensity, Caesar segues into “His Blood,” a song she dedicates to the victims of AIDS. Perhaps sensing some tension from the audience, she sternly interjects, “You can say whatever you want, that’s a mother’s son, a father’s boy.” Her acknowledgment of the disease’s devastating impact on the nation and the African American community marked a welcome departure from the black church’s general silence.57 Predicting a medical cure for the disease within a year, the singer presents the AIDS epidemic as connected to larger social issues. Casting her eye on the “brokenness” engulfing the nation, Caesar calls for spiritual renewal within and beyond the church. As Caesar alternates between singing and preaching, sharing biblical stories of Abraham, Ezekiel, and Jesus, the Tommies melodically repeat the song’s refrain: “If you come to him and be sincere / His blood can restore your soul.”58

The need for spiritual renewal is a recurring theme throughout the album, from the inspirational “Yes Lord, Yes,” to the bass-heavy “Born Again.” Another dominant theme is the promise of a brighter day for those anchored in God and community. On the duet “Things Are Going to Get Better,” Caesar and her former Caravans colleague Albertina Walker encourage their listeners to remain steadfast in their faith. More than twenty years had passed since Walker and Caesar sang as members of the Caravans, but their chemistry was still strong.

All of the aforementioned songs were stellar, but none compared in power or appeal to the night’s greatest showstopper: “Hold My Mule.”

On this eight-minute sermonette, Caesar introduces the audience at Christ Tabernacle to an elderly man named Shouting John. Against the background of piano trills, bluesy guitar notes, and smoldering drums, Caesar walks her audience through the tale of a brewing conflict between an eighty-six-year-old farmer and his church leaders. Early in the sermonette, she vividly describes church leaders’ unsuccessful attempts to subdue the elderly man: “The deacons ran and sat him down; he jumped back up. They tried to hold his legs. His hands were going. When they turned the hands loose, the feet were going!” Working her magic on the crowd, Caesar then shouts: “It’s just like fire; it’s just like fire shut up in my bones.”59

(p.86) Weaving class critique into her narrative, she conveys the church leaders’ frustration with John’s refusal to oblige the church’s politics of respectability. “Doesn’t he know we don’t act like that in our church?” the status conscious deacons query one another. “Doesn’t he know we got dignitaries in our church?” Feeling as if the matter had to be handled outside of Sunday service, the clergymen decide to “go out to John’s house.”60

With the crowd under her spell, Caesar gives a play-by-play account of the church leaders’ confrontation with John at his home. “When they got out there,” Caesar continues, “they found him and a beat-up mule, plowing in the field.” What then follows is a spirited exchange between the leaders and John, who recounts what church folk often refer to as “God’s favor.” In addition to pointing out his ownership of land, he proudly notes his ability to still “harvest my own crop” at his advanced age. He also speaks of a life free from any entanglements with the legal system. “God gave me all of my children,” John testifies, but “not one time have I been to the courthouse, not one time have I been to the cemetery.”61 His point is not to position himself as a member of the privileged elite but as a recipient of God’s grace.62

If their applauses and shouts are any indication, the audience members at Christ Tabernacle identify strongly with John, a “common man” whose faithfulness to God has been well rewarded. Shifting from preacher to songstress, Caesar closes her story with an image of John rejecting the orders of the church leaders and “dancing all around his place.”

Throughout the country, gospel listeners could not get enough of the tale of Shouting John, an everyday man who finished on top. Here was a character who resonated deeply with churchgoing, working-class folks from the South who like John might have been condemned as unsophisticated or uncouth by members of the religious elite. The triumphant John character also appealed to certain members of the African American laboring class whose life trajectories did not fit neatly into popular tales of urban decay, broken homes, and poverty—women and men who had managed like John (only through the grace of God, in their minds) to avoid the traps and pitfalls of America’s criminal justice system. Caesar’s “Hold My Mule” resonated with African Americans who looked at their lives in totality and felt they had been shown God’s favor.

Ironically, Caesar’s celebration of Shouting John, an independent black landowner, coincided with the dramatic decline in the number of African American farmers. The same year Caesar released “Hold My Mule,” the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers filed a complaint against the Farmers Home Administration (FMHA) alleging discrimination against African American farmers. In its complaint to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the advocacy group accused the FMHA of racial discrimination: “FMHA’s actions have further resulted in a disproportionate number of class members being driven out of (p.87) farming. Between 1978 and 1982, the total number of black and Indian farmers declined 23.2 percent, compared to 9.8 percent for the white farmers.”63 By 1987, African Americans owned only 2.4 million acres, nearly 10 million less than they did in 1900. Perhaps in Shouting John, African Americans, especially those in the South who had experienced the loss of land or had sold their properties well below their value, found a heroic figure who had managed to maintain one of the race’s most treasured yet increasingly elusive assets: land.

Released in the year Caesar celebrated her fiftieth birthday, Live … in Chicago testified to the enduring power and appeal of her talent. Thanks to the radio hits “Hold My Mule,” “Yes Lord, Yes,” and “His Blood,” Live … in Chicago dominated the gospel charts for nearly a year. At its peak, according to Caesar, the album was selling on average 25,000 copies a week. In 1989, Billboard chose Caesar as its gospel artist of the year and Live … in Chicago as its gospel record of the year. Caesar’s selection was a reflection of the depth of her talent, her commercial appeal, and her singularity as an artist. Here was a musician who had maintained a special place in the hearts of gospel lovers for thirty years—not because of organizational connections or past achievements but because she was still at the forefront of the genre.

Caesar understood and recognized her special gift. “I’m a down-to-earth singer serving a modern God. I’m a southerner, and my roots are in traditional gospel music. I like songs that give a profound message. I’m not saying traditional gospel is the only music. The Lord has all kinds of vehicles to win souls. … [And] the Lord is using me in mine.”64

Notes:

(1.) Shirley Caesar, Live… in Chicago (Rejoice Records, 1988).

(9.) “First Lady of Gospel,” Ebony, September 1977, 98. See also “Gospel Star Shirley Caesar Says Female Pastors Ok!,” New Pittsburgh Courier, August 10, 1985.

(15.) Interview with Hallie Caesar by Glenn Hinson, May 21, 1979 (H-0194), in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Series H: Piedmont Industrialization (04007H), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

(21.) Charlie T. Roach, box 231, Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

(25.) Bob Darden, “Shirley Caesar: Singing Evangelist,” Rejoice!, Summer 1990, 9.

(29.) “HOB Doubled’66, Billing Promotion, New Acts,” Billboard, January 20, 1968.

(31.) Shirley Caesar, My Testimony (HOB Records, 1968).

(32.) Shirley Caesar, Stranger on the Road (HOB Records, 1968).

(33.) “Gospel Singer Performs before SRO Audiences,” New Journal and Guide, July 20, 1968.

(34.) Eleanor Blair, “Shirley Caesar Teaches Gospel in a Running Sermon of Songs,” New York Times, July 31, 1972.

(p.223) (35.) Hollie West, “Church-Like Concert by Shirley Caesar,” Washington Post, September 8, 1969, B6.

(37.) Shirley Caesar, No Charge (HOB Records, 1975).

(40.) David Nathan, “First Lady of Gospel: Shirley Caesar,” Blues and Soul, January 17, 1978, https://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/shirley-caesar-the-first-lady-of-gospel.

(41.) M. J. Musik, “Record Ratings,” New York Amsterdam News, September 17, 1977.

(44.) “Executive Spotlight: James Bullard, Word Records,” Totally Gospel, November 1986, 11.

(45.) Richard Harrington, “Hail to Shirley Caesar,” Washington Post, February 18, 1983.

(49.) “Shirley Caesar: Putting the Gospel Truth into Politics,” Ebony, December 1988, 70.

(50.) Shirley Caesar interview, WTVD Videotape Collection, 1976–1992, VT-4929/166, Special Collections, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

(52.) Shirley Caesar interview, WTVD Videotape Collection.

(62.) This performance is an excellent case of how Caesar used the sermonette to connect with audiences. Once again, the work of Brooksie Harrington is insightful: “By presenting a subject in story form, her listener becomes emotionally involved just as they become physically and emotionally involved with her music. Somehow Caesar has perfected her verbal artistry to the point that whichever mode of performance she calls upon, she entreats her audience to become a part of that performance. She (p.224) appeals to their emotional interests by ‘putting it right down front where they can get it.’ She also chooses themes, motifs, and plots that most people can identify with and appreciate.” Harrington, “Shirley Caesar,” 118.

(63.) Sinclair Ward, “FMHA Policies Harm Minorities, Group Says,” Washington Post, November 27, 1987.

(64.) Geoffrey Himes, “Shout It! Gospel According to Shirley Caesar,” Washington Post, April 3, 1987.