Over the span of her 60 year career, Pastor Shirley Caesar has recorded close to 50 albums, 30 of those albums hailing as solo projects. She also occupies a unique place in Gospel music history, as a former member of the group”The Caravans.” In tribute to black music month, here she retells some of those memorable moments and reflects on changes through the years.
When The Caravans came to her home state, Raleigh, NC, she was determined to join the group and took matters into her own hands.
“When the Caravans came to my city in Raleigh, NC, it was only Inez, Albertina and Sara McKissick. I said, ‘Somebody tell that lady that I can sing.’ Dorothy of the Harmonettes said she told Tina, but I can understand the no response from her because I get requests all over the country where young people will confront me saying that that can sing. By the time The Caravans left that Sunday afternoon concert, and went on to Kinston, NC, it was there that I wrote my own request, ‘Please call on Shirley Caesar to sing a solo’. I felt that if she heard me, she would want me and she did.”
Reflections on the changes in the music ministry
“Gospel singing has gone through so many, many changes. I’m grateful for the wonderful changes. We’re no longer in the “Do Wap” stage. We are now pretty much like ministry of preaching. We sing to where everybody can understand what we’re saying. Not only that, we are now singing a lot of praise and worship songs, but the world needs to know is that what goes around comes around. The hymnology days will be back, the days of traditional will be back, but right now I like the trend. I like just what we’re doing now.”
Pastor Caesar also clarified some things concerning gospel music such as the business side of gospel.
“Understand that Gospel music is a big business. It’s bigger than classical and jazz. Because it’s so large, it’s a world within itself. Any kind of gospel you want, we can do it from contemporary, to country gospel, even from blue grass gospel. I’ve never heard of blue grass gospel,” Caesar laughs, “but if there was any such thing as Blue Grass gospel, we could do it. It’s actually the music that changes it. The lyrics are the same. We could do it.”
Reflections on the changes in the ministry
“I’ve seen the ministry go from one thing to another. First they had a ministry, where they would talk about healing, the blessings, and all of that. Now I’m especially grateful for the fact that it’s more of the Word. However, as for me, I love to give the people a lot of up front Word and I also like to give them some celebration on the end. I do that because we still have people that believe in the “sing and preach” type of preaching. I try to give them a lot of Word and a little “whoopology” at the end. That’s what the big boys call it. It’s when you get really excited on the end of a sermon.”
Relationship VS. Religion
As a Pastor, Caesar knows the difference between a relationship with Christ and religion and recalls a time where religion was prevalent in the black church.
“Don’t try to wear your salvation. Live your salvation. I remember as a child, we wore long, long dresses down to our wrists, at least that’s what they taught, but I didn’t do that!” Caesar declares. “Some churches even taught that we as women couldn’t wear red. Some folks thought it were a Jezebel color, but when you went to their house, they had red bedspreads, red draperies…It was hypocritical.
“You couldn’t show anything. All of this was for the women,” Caesar says. “There weren’t rules for the men. I know what I’m talking about because my brother one time belonged to a ministry like that. When my nieces, practically babies, came down to visit in the summer, they had on long skirts and stockings. You couldn’t see anything but their hands and their face. You couldn’t see anything. As soon as my brother would pull off, my mother would pull off all that stuff off of them and put little sundresses on them so they could be little children.”
Pastor Caesar later on told Gospel Today about a particular church who did not believe in watching television.
“I remember preaching at one church and they didn’t believe in television. I was doing a revivial many, many years ago. The pastor had me staying with his daughter. I woke up that morning and heard “As the World Turns” and they were supposed to not believe in television! Her father pulls up in the truck, and the daughter took the television and put it in the closet. I said, ‘The Lord has eyes in the closet, too!’
Pastor Caesar grew up during a time where she and those she travelled with, gospel artists could not come and go as they do today in 2013. She remembers well how it used to be and the challenges she met along the way
“I am from the South, and I grew up during a time when we were shunned in a lot of states we went in like the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and even some parts of Florida. We went through,” Caesar recalls. “I mean, we really, really went through. So yeah, I know something about the good times and the bad times. I must admit, I had far more good days even though I sang during a period of segregation, still in my lifetime, we had far more good days than we had bad days.
To better understand what Pastor Caesar means by “we had far more good days than we had bad days, she shared one particular story about how difficult the times really were.
“This was about four to five years before I joined the Caravans. We were on our way to Tarboa, NC to Columbia,SC. There were six of us in the car. Leroy Johnson, Elder Jackson, Elder Jackson’s wife, another lady, and a boy of seventeen and myself. I was fifteen. I believe that it was only by the Grace of God that my life didn’t end like Emmett Till or any others who lost their lives.
There was only one driver in the car and he kept getting sleepy, pulling over and stopping so I stayed awake with the driver. He happened to stop at the wrong gas station. It was a Saturday morning and we had been travelling all night long. During that time, not one car had passed, not even a highway state patrolman. We stopped at this gas station and the driver went in to get some sodas or something. I don’t even know if he went to get gas, but everybody else was asleep in the car at first.
Leory Johnson who was a paraplegic, he had one leg, got out of the car and went in. He asked for a soda pop. While he was standing there drinking the soda pop, there was a 17 year old with us who went in the store, stood at the counter and said, ‘I’d like to have a piece of peppermint candy.’ The man behind the counter tricked him. The boy was standing there yawning, and said, ‘Did you say peppermint candy?’. The boy said, “Uh huh,” yawning, just like that. The man said, ‘Did you say, ‘Uh huh’ to me?’ The boy wasn’t thinking and so he said, ‘Yeah I said, ‘Uh huh’.’
The man went down behind the counter and comes up with a hammer. Leory said that he thought it was a gun at first.
The man says, “Let’s kill them all.”
“They had fought their way out around the gas pumps and I saw them pick up an oil drum and hit the preacher in the head. Every time he would stand back up, they would hit him again. By this time, I knew I couldn’t beat anybody. So I got out of the car and ran!
“I looked across the street and see these two missionaries that were in the car with us and one of them acted like they were afraid to jump across the ditch. I hollered, ‘Girl, you better jump that ditch!’ but by that time I was doing at least five miles an hour. I don’t know! I was burning rubber, girl! I was running for my life. They threw a Coca Cola bottle at that girl in the ditch. She got up and took off running again.
“I look around and Leroy, somehow had gotten away but not before the man hit him in the mouth. Somebody in the store jumped him and hit him. They hit him in the mouth so hard, girl, it about faced him. He ran out the store and ran across the street to the woods.
“They were so determined to get that boy that they got into a 1949 Ford and trailed him as they went around the road! They were so determined to kill that boy. They knew the area. The boy ran up to a man raking his leaves and man ran in his house and got his shotgun. The man put Leroy in his car and brought him to the highway state patrol office.
“I ran right past them. I ran all the way to Grangeville, SC. When they found me, I was sitting on a tree stump in a vacant car lot. Leroy tried to get me in the car with them and I said, “I’m doing better than you all are.” I don’t know what happened after that, but I do know they took all of our clothes and threw them in black muddy water. The policeman found our clothes and brought it to us in a box.
“I haven’t been back to Grangeville but maybe once or twice since then, but for years whenever we had to go through there, I would get on the floor of the car because of the trauma I had gone through. But, I am still here.”
Words of Wisdom to young artists
Clearly, Pastor Caesar has a wealth of godly knowledge and wisdom from all that she has experienced in her life. Young artists, in particular would benefit from her words of wisdom.
“Young artists today got it so good I want to tell them, “Don’t take this glorious privilege for granted. Don’t try to be grand because you’ll look up and somebody will beat you doing what you’re already doing. You’re not all of that in a bag of chips. It’s nice to be nice because what you send out is going to come back to you. You can’t take it with you anyway so be blessed and enjoy the Lord and your life. Enjoy it to the extent that you will not look down on anybody and not take anybody for granted. Just tell God thank you for those that paved the way. Thank God for those who have loaned their shoulders for you to stand on because if you keep your nose clean and live the right life, it’s a possibility that God will give you longevity.
“I don’t want the young artists to be overnight wonders, but I want them to have longevity with this great gospel singing.”
About the Author
Ariel Jones is a budding journalist who enjoys writing about the truth. Her aim is to help people gain a better understanding of the world around them. Email your comments and questions to her here.