Shirley Caesar

Shirley Caesar

Study Objective:

Shirley Caesar:  A Woman of Words , (housed in the Schomburg Collection) is a text that speaks to the gospel tradition, to the poetics of rhetoric, as heard in Shirley Caesar’s performance style, and to her total communication style. My academic scholarship on Shirley Caesar is unique; she has more Grammies than any other female artist in Gospel Music. It is my intention to expand upon my dissertation, entitled “Shirley Caesar: A Woman of Words,” by focusing on my actual conversations with her recorded over a period of two years. I traveled with her as a researcher to categorize the conversations that record her entrance into the Gospel tradition, to trace the evolution of gospel Music and its future musical trends, and to analyze how her words actually become a performance. This emphasis upon the “seamlessness’ of her words, integrated in her talking and her singing, is poignantly and poetically described in Yeats’s observation that one “cannot separate the dancer from the dance.” The synaesthesia of her phrasing, her rhetoric, and her metaphorical narrative style all form an organic whole, creating a harmoniousness between her performance and the “Word,” forming a poetic, homiletic style that is unique.


Results from this proposed study will enhance the work that I have already started on Shirley Caesar and will also make this information available to others. The research is addressed to scholars who will be interested in the field of Gospel Music not only as an immediate contribution to learning in one specific genre, but also as a significant contribution to the advancement of knowledge in the humanities. Even more importantly, this study will advance my development as a scholar, teacher and interpreter of the humanities. Only a handful of scholars such as Anthony Helibut (1971) Kip Lornell (1988) and Ray Allen (1990) have critically analyzed gospel music, its performers, and its transformations over the years. These scholars have begun to unfold gospel music’s true significance and establish academically and intellectually its rightful place in history. However, since references that really speak to the creation and evolution of gospel music are minimal, I hope my research will add another dimension to the understanding of this great performing art. Notably, I reviewed the research done by Heilbut, Lornell, Ray and other related scholars, understood their dynamics, and think that I am now able to apply my comprehensive knowledge of gospel music to the study of Shirley Caesar’s verbal artistry. Anthony Heilbut should be recognized for an in-depth portrait of the gospel in Gospel Sound (1971). He unveils the musical accomplishments of all-time great artists: Inez Andrews, (a member of the Caravans during the Shirley Caesar years with the group, often called the most popular Caravan soloist during the late fifties), Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Shirley Caesar. Helibut cites the popularity of male artists and gospel groups including James Cleveland and Brother Joe May, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Five Blind Boys, and The Institutional Choir of Brooklyn, New York. Looking at Anthony Heilbut’s research, I have learned a lot from his format, content, and research data published in Gospel Sound. He reckons with, puts into historical perspective, and analyzes the above artists in an effort to record the artistic merit, quality, and social relevance of gospel music. He effectively records the fact that there are political underpinnings in the lyrics of many gospel songs. For example, themes of Black Pride and Black Power are prevalent within gospel music. However, the author took an huge task, one that I would be most apprehensive about because of the many artists he documents in this book. Each of the artists he refers to could have easily taken up much more space than he allowed them. Heilbut shows great bravery; however, he is probably doing a disservice to the individual singers while rendering a positive service by providing a general history of gospel.

Unlike Heilbut, I am proposing to concentrate on one artist thoroughly to analyze and record her comprehensive influence on a genre and on other artists. My ultimate goal from this project is to create a life-history book; my most immediate goal, however, is to transcribe these recorded conversations and convert them into a high-fidelity medium. The tapes will be transferred onto ‘reel to reel’ conversion tapes that are endorsed by The Fayetteville State University Libraries and the Folklore Library at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These tapes are relevant to the scholarly study of English, African American Studies, music, history, art, linguistics, folklore, and Women’s Studies. To date, I am the only scholar in the world who has the rapport with Caesar to solicit her conversations, her reflections on music, on race, on the history and performance of gospel music, and on several other eclectic, aesthetic topics.


The conversations of Shirley Caesar are recorded on cassette tapes; the research interviews are completed, and the data is part of my personal library. The tapes have already been approved by my dissertation committee. {English Department, The Ohio State University — Dr. Patrick Mullen Chairperson} I plan to re-edit the tapes to meet the scholarly demands of researchers in the fields of English, African-American Studies, music, history, art, linguistics, and folklore. The tapes will be converted to ‘reel to reel tapes. To request “Shirley Caesar: A Woman of Words,” via Telnet to New York Public Library


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