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Penola Caesar

Monroe, LA

Penola Caesar sang and taught old-time old time gospel moans, chants, and lined-out hymns.

Penola Caesar: Maintaining Old Gospel Singing Traditions

By Susan Roach


Penola Caesar, a renowned gospel singer in her hometown of Monroe and beyond, performed and taught the old gospel singing traditions in the African American Baptist church. Known as "Sister Caesar," she became an advocate for maintaining these traditions and held workshops in area churches to teach these older styles and develop an appreciation for the older slow-paced "Dr. Watts" and other long-meter hymns sung in a slow, lined-out, call-response pattern. In addition to her performing the old style hymns, she was a powerful soloist who could move audiences as well with her spoken words about her tradition and her faith. This led to her being referred to as "Lil' Mahalia Jackson."

Her excellence in this tradition led to her inclusion in a number of state and national folklife activities. A regular participant in the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Monroe from 1994 until her death Oct. 14, 2006, she was also invited to demonstrate her art form at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1997, when the Delta region was a festival feature. At these festival performances, she provided the contextualizing devotional song service for Easter Rock performances and discussed the old singing traditions. She received both the Louisiana Division of the Arts Fellowship and an Apprenticeship as a master artist to teach her music traditions to apprentice Seane Kelley. She was also selected for the Louisiana Touring Roster. As a result of her listing in this directory, she received a scholarship from the Southern Arts Federation Arts Exchange to attend a workshop to learn booking and press kit development. She also performed in the concert for this regional arts conference—one of the highlights of her career. The Monroe newspaper frequently celebrated her performances and accomplishments with major feature stories, for she seemed larger than life (see Cannon, McKenna, Rushing).

At the Louisiana Folklife Festival, Penola Caesar (center) joins moderator, Annie Staten (left), Hattie Addison, and Seane Kelley (right) for a narrative stage presentation on African American sacred music traditions. Photo: Susan Roach.

Penola Caesar's impressive stature, charismatic personality, caring spirit, and deep faith captivated all who heard her sing and speak. Her gently melodious speaking voice became a powerful contralto when she began to sing. Learning the old sacred song tradition in the folk process from her family and church community, she took the songs to heart because she strived to learn their deeper meanings and uses. While she chose not to be a professional singer, she felt called to sing the gospel. Central to her life, work, and belief, her songs rang true because one could hear through her voice that she believed totally in the message she was delivering.

Learning the Tradition

Born October 8, 1943, to Christine Thomas Head and Louis Head, a Baptist minister, she grew up in the Lone Wa Baptist Church, on Thatcher Plantation, north of Monroe, formerly called Philip, Louisiana. There at the early age of eight, she began to appreciate the gospel music she heard around her. She was baptised in the nearby bayou and began to serve as an usher in the church, a service that she had selected. Typically women dressed in white, ushers monitor and seat the congregation and minister to members who have spiritual experiences during the service; they fan and take care of these members during this experience. In her position as usher, she sometime would sing: "I liked the songs, and then that's when they told me I was too loud to be an usher. I guess evidently it was a part of me because my mother was a singer, I took to music and I liked it, but I wanted usher instead, but the president of the usher board told me that I needed to get in choir" (12 June 2001). There she began to develop her gift of singing. The young Penola also had a deep respect for the elders of the church, especially those who led the congregational spiritual hymns.

Around the age of twelve, she lost her mother to cancer and helped to raise her nine siblings. As she carried this heavy burden, she began to listen to the long, short, and common meter hymns and learn how they were sung. She also learned about the moans and chants and call and response, where the audience joined in the praise. After observing and learning from the older church members, she began to ask the deacons who lead the songs why certain songs were being sung:

I began to inquire and ask questions, "Why are we singing these hymns? What is behind them?" And I noticed most times the deacons, what we call stewards of the church, would sing, and we had a call and response in singing. So . . . I found out the leader in calling the songs was always telling a story in the song. It was like poems being recited, and I wanted [to know] why were you singing that and what's the purpose of it. And they became very emotional when they would sing the hymns, and I saw it as such a testimony because it's such a story behind it. . . . You could feel it, something, from the singing, and I knew then I wanted to relate to that. And I would call when I wanted to sing a song. I wanted to know what is the next line, what is it saying because I learned you could sing a lie as well as tell a lie. (12 June 2001)

In other words, the young girl learned that the singer had to believe in the truth of the story being sung. The singer was not to sing lies, only truths. It was this youthful curiosity that provided the background she would need to maintain these important traditions.

When she began junior high school, she began to sing anthems and gospel in minstrel concerts at school. Although she could not read music, she was asked to perfom with the concert band at Myles High School in Sterlington, Louisiana. She also began to sing some blues and rock and roll. Around this time, one of her secular performances was heard by talent scouts for a recording business in Nashville that was interested in recording her blues and rock n' roll. Caesar recalls the event:

I started out really as a blues singer and at the age of 15 and 16 when I was approached with a contract to record rock and roll, my father said no. So I didn't worry about the style of music; I was looking at the popularity and the money I was going to be making, but I didn't know I was going to be selling my soul down the drain as such. Later on when I became 18, I said, "Oh, I'm so glad I didn't because I don't think I would have known the joy I really had." . . . I had decided that I was going to sing gospel rather than rock and roll. So it was easy to make that decision that it was going to be gospel in that house. I let go of that and began to pursue it more and more into gospel because Mahalia Jackson was my . . . [role model], . . . So that blessed me too as I began to study the word of God, I found real strength in it, and I began to understand that where there was unity there was strength. So that's where I began to deal with the hymns because I could bring more unity among the believers as we worship together. (12 June 2001)

It is interesting that the young Penola was drawn to both blues and the old-style lined-out hymns, for musicologist William Dargan sees an important link between the two: "The lining-out hymns are calls followed by prolonged responses, which contain an essential range of melodic inflections and harmonic implications, out of which the blues and later gospel performance practices emerged in the early twentieth century" (Dargan 1995: 34). Caesar's voice was well suited for the melismatic singing with its slurs and blue notes found in both. However, she abandoned the blues for the church.

In staying with the church and becoming more involved with its sacred music, she was interested not only in the music, but in the meaning behind the music:

So I didn't want to sing just to sing; I found out there was a story behind it, like "I love the Lord." I love him why? Because he heard my cry. He did what else? . . . So I began to get a message from it. . . . It takes a power from on high to sing it with a firm conviction and as a testimony. So I said, "This is what I like to do," and I became a devotional leader and I found out how helpful those hymns were at that time, because we didn't have all the music [hymn books] that we have now, and I liked it because there was only the patting of the feet and the clapping of the hands. And when they would sing those hymns, . . . everybody could feel something from the Savior. So I said, "Oh my goodness," I said "This is ideal." (12 June 2001)

She also discovered at that time that the music was a means of unifying the spirit of the congregation: "It was bringing about unity among the believers, because we all had to join in and participate. And so [that's] when I began to understand . . . that when you have the love of God in your heart, you want to share it" (12 June 2001).

Among the influences on her music were the recordings of the late Pastor C. L. Franklin's sermons and the following books: the National Worded Edition Hymn Book, the Baptist Standard Hymnal, the Ministry of Music in the Black Church, Living Hymn Stories, 101 Hymn Stories. Around 1960 she learned more of the art from listening to Uncle Marcus Stevens and the late Papa Herman Carter. As is typical of many traditional singers, she learned all her music by ear since she never learned to read musical notation. She explains how many people assumed that she was a musician as well as a singer:

I'm limited to music because I don't read music. Most people think I was a number one musician in town. They call me a lot of times to ask, . . . "Will you play for us?". . . They want me to play, but I don't play, . . . but it helps you to kind of count and understand music when you open the book; you can understand how the song is going to go. (12 June 2001)

Continuing her education, she obtained her cosmetologist certification from Johnson Beauty College through the National Beauty Culturists' League and also attended Robinson Business College and took bible correspondence courses. In her later professional work as a beautician and cosmetologist in her Beautyland Beauty Salon in Monroe for over thirty years, she often integrated her sacred music gift into her work by singing to her clients. In an interview she stated, "This is when I talk to God in little moments throughout the day. It's my time with him" (McKenna 1B). She regarded it as a ministry:

I sing while I'm working. They [the clients] become emotional. I say, "I'm your cosmetologist, not an usher. I have a sign on the wall, my only license is cosmetology, but the others are sidelines: psychiatrist, financial counselor, marriage counselor, babysitter, and all of these things come. Sometime you can feel the tension in your customers, the nervousness that they have, and the spirit will reveal to me a song that I can sing; most of the time I keep my music or radio going, and they know; almost all the time they sing, and they listen (12 June 2001)

Her reference to not being an usher ironically echoes her choosing to serve as an usher when she first joined the church, only to be told that she should join the choir instead. Among the usher duties was to comfort and care for members of the congregation who might be overcome with emotion from a spiritual experience. Caesar used her music ministry to provide comfort to her clients. Another service she provided was serving as a make-up artist for local funeral homes. "She liked to make people look their best when they were going over to the other side" (McKenna 1B). An additional ministry was "encouraging oncology patients in the hospital" because cancer was hereditary in her family. She was diagnosed with cancer at 19; her mother had died at the age of 42, and her brother at age 37 (12 June 2001).

Passing It On

While Penola Caesar continued to use her vocal gifts in praise through solos in church, she also maintained her interest in the older style traditional sacred music used in the rural churches of her youth. Today, because the most people are literate, the churches use hymn books, and contemporary gospel is prevalent in the urban churches and most of the rural churches. Caesar feared that the lined-out hymn tradition was slowly dying out, so she was concerned with preserving her ancestral sacred tradition by teaching the songs and the traditional ways of singing them to younger members of the churches. As a result, she got the idea to teach the tradition in the form of a spiritual "summons." She writes about this in her seminar booklet she provided for her workshops:

This Seminar was summined [sic] to me by the Holy Spirit, while lying awake at 3:47 A.M. in the morning. Prayerfully I readily responded and called the Pastor and asked if I could do it on a certain date and would let the Pastor's Aide Society be the sponsor and the proceeds would go to the Pastor's Aide and a donation to Mrs. Ethel Jones [the secretary] for her untiring, zealous, unique secretarial expertise who so patiently prepared our material. (Seminar)

Penola Caesar offered workshops to teach others about long metered hymns. Photo: Susan Roach.

She held this first workshop in July 1988. Because she received many requests from participants in the first seminar and because she saw a need to educate choir members, devotional leaders, deacons so that they could teach others interested in the tradition, she decided to hold more seminars. She writes in her seminar booklet, "By popular demand, I am attempting to hold the seminar annually. . . . Because of my respect and love for my pastor, I deemed it an honor to be given this opportunity to enhance the worship services in our church fellowship to help keep the traditional hymns alive in the hearts of our young Christians" (Seminar).

Penola Caesar leads the Dr. Watts Hymn workshop. Photo by Peter Jones.

Receiving only voluntary honoraria, she held workshops at churches in the following towns: Gilbert, Rayville, Bastrop, Columbia, Alexandria, West Monroe, Monroe, Farmerville, Ruston, and Shreveport. She also presented workshops on sacred hymns for Christian Educators' Conferences held in Nashville, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

Usually, her workshops were presented in the context of a religious service at various churches and sacred music and church conventions in order to help preserve this traditional style of congregational singing. The workshops focused on the long-meter, lined-out hymn tradition. As she puts it, the lined-out hymn is really the "language of the soul."

Language of the Soul, a booklet by Sister Penola Head-Caesar
for her Gospel Music Artist and Sacred Oratory Traditions Workshops

In the 18th and 19th centuries when hymnals were scarce and illiteracy was high, congregational hymns were sung with a leader, or caller, raising the hymn and calling out the hymn, line by line. Bailey writes why this practice would have been an attractive one to African Americans: "It was natural that the enslaved blacks, when they were converted to Christianity, should readily accept the practice as a part of the white man's religious rituals, for lining-out was very similar to the call-and-response practice characteristic of much African music performance practices" (3).

Among the favorites of the common meter hymns sung in the African American lining-out tradition are those by the English cleric and composer Isaac Watts (1674-1748), known in African American churches as Dr. Watts hymns. According to Dargan, while other authors published hymns in this same tradition, Watts' collections were the most popular in both England and America. Because his popularity continued through the 19th century, "slaves who learned hymns by various authors through the lining-out form apparently came to associate the entire tradition with the name and honorific title "Dr. Watts" (26). Dargan's characteristics of the lined out hymns include "unaccompanied," slow moving, "sung in unison" "along a vocal continuum ranging from moaning to speaking to chanting to singing" (27).

Caesar carries these ideas further in explaining how the "old 100s and Dr. Watts" hymns were adapted by African Americans:

Other favorite writers were John Newton and the Wesley brothers. These hymns came out of the English Methodist church. And we came along and blackened them and put a little gravy to them, and that's how it became such an art for us to sing and down through the years as the slaves would sing in the fields, they would have another way of sending messages to each other to be encouraged in the fields as they worked, because a lot of the people became so burdened with the situations of life. And they would sing songs as signals to the other to be encouraged to let "Jesus fix it; it's going to be all right." (12 June 2001)

Her workshops focused on teaching lining-out hymns and their various meters, the Dr. Watts (or long meter) style of singing, moans and chants, and appropriate use of each hymn for different occasions. The hymns that are typically lined out are written in common meter, long meter, or short meter (Dargan 27). Common meter hymns have four-line stanza (quatrain) with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third. Thus the syllables for each of the four lines are 8, 6, 8, 6. Long meter hymns have four-line stanza (quatrain) with each line in iambic tetrameter with rhymes in the second and fourth lines and often in the first and third. Thus its syllables per line are 8, 8, 8, 8. Short Meter features iambic lines in the first, second, and fourth are in trimeter, and the third in tetrameter, with rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third ("Language of the Soul").

While Caesar briefly addresses these meters in her workshop and its materials, she and others also use the term "common meter" to refer to singing a hymn at the speed it was written, and use "long meter" to refer to singing it as a slow lined-out hymn in which the speed and tune change, and the words are more chanted than sung. According to Caesar, the difference in the long meter and short meter "depends on the timing and the meter that is there" (12 June 2001). In Caesar's demonstration of what she calls the "long meter version" of "Father, I Stretch My Hand to Thee," she uses multiple notes per syllable of each word, musically termed "melisma." Then she presents the much shorter "common meter version" with the original melody of the song. Typically, in lining out this hymn, the caller would call out the line in common meter, and the congregation would respond in long meter.

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At a Louisiana Voices Teachers' Institute, Penola Caesar demonstrates long and common meter in a stanza of "Father I Stretch My Hand to Thee". Recorded by Susan Roach, 12 June 2001.

Caesar notes the importance of the caller knowing the hymn perfectly and the congregation listening carefully:

Most of the times when they line it out, you have to listen to it because it is important that you have a leader to do that, and you make sure the leader has a strong, forceful voice that could line the hymns, and then if you don't know how to respond behind it, and it is important that the leader knows the hymn completely because the audience may not, and if you line it out, and you don't have anyone to respond, then it becomes a dead hymn. You have to listen because when the words are worded out and you don't understand; because a lot of time when they are worded out, you will forget what you said in that sentence. (12 June 2001)

While in the 19th century, lined-out hymns might have been used throughout in the church service, today these lined-out hymns, as well as the moans, are more often found in the devotional service preceding the main worship service in most rural churches and many urban ones as well. The devotional may include a line-out hymn, a scripture reading, and prayer. Bailey's description of the typical devotional service in contemporary Mississippi African American churches applies to the north Louisiana churches as well:

The elders of the church seat themselves before the congregation and take turns in "raising" (that is, choosing and leading) the hymns and praying. It is an almost invariable practice that the worshippers will stand to sing the last stanza and then, after sitting down, continue to hum at least one more stanza as the elder or deacon prays. When they have finished humming this additional stanza, the worshippers may make verbal ejaculations and comments or cry out, groan, and hum bits of melody as the elder continues to pray. Once the prayer is finished, another elder raises another hymn. (4)

In the devotional service preceding Caesar's 2002 workshop held in conjunction with her apprenticeship with Seane Kelley, her apprentice lines out the Isaac Watts common meter hymn based on Psalms 116:1, "I Love the Lord" and see the workshop handout visual. This hymn falls between the end of the scripture reading and the prayer. The congregation responds to his lines in using "long meter" and continues to with soft humming and moans during the prayer, which thanks God and asks for many blessings on "Sister Penola Caesar as she takes time out to try to keep something going that has been going on for years and years":

I love the Lord; He heard my cries,
And pitied every groan;
Long as I live, when troubles rise,
I'll hasten to His throne. (9 Sept. 2002)

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Seane Kelley leads the Dr. Watts hymn, "I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry" during Caesar's workshop September 9, 2002. Recorded by Susan Roach.

In discussing the similar lined-out hymns and the moans documented in Mississippi, Bailey states that it is difficult to describe it in "conventional notation," because of its "occasional modal inflections." He finds "the most interesting tones are the ornamental ones, which are often quarter tones or smaller. In fact, some pitch changes are barely perceptible, but one realizes how vital they are to the style once he has tried to conceive of the performance without them" (Bailey 6).

The moans and humming, also taught by Caesar, and used during the prayer demonstrate these same ornamental tones and melisma (singing several different sequential notes in one syllable). Caesar admits that sometimes people may have forgotten or misunderstood the called line, "so they began to moan. That is where we come up with our little moans we have to fill in the little gaps." However, she thinks that the real function of moans is "to encourage the prayer . . . That's what I really love about it is knowing we have to support each other. You're not out there by yourself; but to have the audience participate, it makes you feel secure" (12 June 2001).

Caesar elaborates on how the moan is used during prayer and how it functions to support the person delivering the prayer:

Most of our moans that we use during our prayer time—and they begin to pray and a lot of people become overbearing [overwrought] at prayers, and they become emotional, and those that are praying with them—that's really so important: I learned that we have to support each other because if you become overbearing in your pray you are not alone because I am praying for you, and I'm praying along with you, so I come as an encourager to encourage you in your prayer as you are praying about a situation, your job, your husband, or your trials in life. And then I will come along as you pray, and you become emotional . . . And then there's another believer who has gone through what you are now going through; they may come along and encourage you, [singing:] "Let Jesus fix it; it'll be all right. Let Jesus fix it; it'll be all right," and that serves as a little bridge until you get your composure back together. (12 June 2001)

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The moaning tradition demonstrated by Penola Caesar 30 May 2004. Recorded by Derrick Nation for NG Audio, Monroe, LA.

Caesar terms the moans "short meter," but actually, they are not hymns, but perhaps brief lines of hymns that can be used to support one who is offering a prayer or in private as a personal expression. She lists numerous moans in the last two pages of her "Language of the Soul," including "The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall not want," "Let Jesus fix it, it'll be all right," and "If the Lord don't help me, I can't stand the storm." Caesar explains that these can be performed by members who are too shy to perform otherwise:

What we use a lot is our short meter, our chants; it gives everybody a chance to participate because that becomes your story; some who are not able to verbally express themselves, they can find in a song. Everybody is nervous; a lot of people are nervous, and that is something I learned through the word of God, that you come before him with fear and trembling, so you are not on your own, so it's going to always be a nervous reaction. (12 June 2001)

Penola Caesar performs at her live recording Old Timers Hymns service. Photo: Susan Roach.

Another subject covered in her workshops is selecting hymns that can be used for various purposes. For example, she states, "Congregational hymns are used to get everyone involved in the service; this will promote fellowship and care for each other in the congregation" (9 Sept. 2002). She noted that hymns can be categorized by their subject matter (see "Language of the Soul" for examples). In addition, some hymns are appropriate for different parts of a religious service. As an example of a hymn that could be used on the occasion of the Lord's Supper, Caesar uses the common meter hymn, "There is a Fountain," written by William Cowper in 1772; however, she demonstrates lining out in long meter this hymn, out using long meter in the event that there is no musician present:

There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stain

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Penola Caesar sings "Amazing Grace" during her workshop September 9, 2002. Recorded by Susan Roach.

Using "Amazing Grace," (by John Newton and William Cowper) as an example, Caesar also points out that depending on the occasion and the availability of musicians, a common meter hymn can be performed in different ways: "That's your metered hymn, and you're going to do a call and response; always remember that one you can use for your devotion period. You can come right back with a choir, inspirational; if the choir wanted to do the hymn "Amazing Grace," they could come right back: [Sings hymn as choir with congregation; she adds a "Praise God, Praise God" improvisation with the same tune]. "That would be a good choral number and it would still be in good taste." She notes that it can also be an inspirational solo that one makes into a personal statement; "That should become your testimony, and you can sing it, and one thing about it; you don't have to direct that number because you don't direct a solo, so it becomes each believer's solo, so we don't have to; we just go in the direction of the Holy Spirit as we sing it, and it becomes yours." (9 Sept. 2002).

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Seane Kelley sings "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" during a workshop September 9, 2002. Recorded by Susan Roach.

Toward the end of her September 9, 2002 workshop, she asked her apprentice Seane Kelley to lead a line-out hymn. He selected "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," (published by William Williams in 1745 and translated by Peter Williams, 1771).

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy pow'rful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain,
Where the healing waters flow.

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Penola Caesar leads the congregation in the spiritual, "How Did You Feel When You Come Out the Wilderness" at the workshop. Recorded by Susan Roach.

Although Caesar did not typically address spirituals during the workshops, when she asked for requests from the congregation, some asked for the old spiritual, "How Did You Feel When You Come out the Wilderness?" She responded by leading the song in a type of call and response, improvising as she leads out the lines with her powerful "Come Out, and the congregation responds, "Out the wilderness" She adds her own improvised lines, "The deacons felt like praying," "The mothers felt like praying," and "The preacher felt like preaching" (9 Sept. 2002).

Penola Caesar held workshops such as this one at Trenton Baptist Church. Photo: Susan Roach.

Following her apprenticeship and fellowship, Caesar decided to produce a live recording at a church service in West Monroe at Piney Grove Baptist Church on Sunday, May 30, 2004. The program for the event stated: Recording live "Old Timers Church of Dr. Watts and Hymns." In his introduction of her, John Russell states, "Why her? Tonight we give her her flowers; we don't want to wait until she goes down. . . . I present to some introduce to others, Mrs. Penola Caesar" (30 May 2004). Her long performance featured solos with backup singers as well as a few older hymns. Her theme song, as she called it for the event, "Love Lifted Me": (James Rowe and Howard Smith, 1912), was introduced with her personal testimony before she sang all its stanzas:

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Penola Caesar's introduction of the first stanza and chorus of "Love Lifted Me." Recorded by Susan Roach.
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Penola Caesar sings "Love Lifted Me." From the CD Old Timers Church Songs Featuring: Penola Caesar.

This is my theme song. This song is very dear to me. It was when I was really feeling down and out. It seemed like no friends really cared. You listen to gossip; you pass judgment on people and in spite of all that what has been said, done, and is happening today, I tell them I'm broke, but I feel good. God's a healer, and he's continually working on me; he's preparing me and making me ready for something I can't handle right now, and I thank him because when nothing else could help, nothing else, God's love lifted me. [performs song:]

I was sinking deep in sin
Far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply I was stained within
Sinking to rise no more.
But the master of the sea
Heard my despairing cry
And from the waters he lifted me
Now safe, safe am I.
Oh, love lifted me
Love lifted me
And when nothing else could help
God's love lifted me. (30 May 2004)

Penola Caesar performs old hyms at her Old Timers Church Hymns live recording event. Photo by Susan Roach.

From this special concert, a CD was produced, entitled Old Timers Church Songs Featuring: Penola Caesar. The album included ten tracks of solos of newer hymns: "Bless that Wonderful Name of Jesus," "My Soul Loves Jesus," "You Can't Hurry God," "Back to Dust," I Want to Be More Like Jesus," "It's a Shame," and "I Am Redeemed." The two traditional hymns are "Glory to His Name" and "Love Lifted Me." One track entitled "Metered Hymns," focuses on the moaning tradition contextualized with her discussion of the feelings and situations where the specific moans might be used.

Old Timers Church Hymns Live Recording Program

One thing I know: I been born again.
When the ship make a landing, I want to be on board.
I got somebody to go all the way.
If I can't say nothing, I'll just wave my hand.
O, I knew when I started, I had a race to run.
I'm weak but I'm willing to go all the way.
Oh the Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
If the Lord don't help me, I can't stand the storm.
Lord put your arms around me everywhere I go.


In addition to receiving awards and recognition from the Louisiana Division of the Arts for her musical gifts and her work to maintain important sacred music traditions, Penola Caesar received recognition from her community. She especially remembered being recognized and embraced by the late mayor of Monroe, Melvin Rambin in 2001 on stage at the Martin Luther King Day Recognition at the Monroe Civic Center, being special soloist for an event held for state senator Charles D. Jones, and being presented a special proclamation by Mayor Marc Morial of New Orleans. When Caesar developed health problems a few months after her live recording, her church Piney Gove Baptist Church in West Monroe, held an event to honor and show church and community appreciation on November 7, 2004: "A Lovefest Musical Celebration" for "Sister Penola Caesar, Recording Artist & Gospel Singer."

Program for "A Lovefest"

The spirit of Caesar's gospel work still thrives in Ouachita Parish, where her former apprentice Seane Kelley still lives and sings. After his apprenticeship with her and his graduation from high school, he attended the United Theological Seminary in Monroe. In 2004 he pastored a church in Winnsboro and later moved to work with other rural congregations and in funeral directing. Currently, he is starting to assist the pastor at Trenton Baptist Church in West Monroe. With his passion for music, he had begun composing his own hymns and anthems. In 2008 when the music minister for his home church, Trenton Baptist Church, saw all of them in his portfolio, he wanted Kelley to do a concert of his hymns, so Kelley got a group of young people together to learn and perform them at the church.

Penola Caesar and her apprentice Seane Kelley. Photo: Susan Roach.

The concert was such a success that the group was invited to perform other places, so Kelley formed his Victory choral group. It grew to a mass choir of about 40 young members; in 2014, the ensemble has 25 members ranging in age from 18-30. Performing almost every weekend, Victory travels to Baton Rouge, Mississippi, and beyond and is planning to record a CD. Versatile in their performances, the choir's repertoire ranges from newer pieces to traditional hymns to the old style "Dr. Watts" hymns and moans taught by Caesar. In addition to their choral performances, they have started other ministries, including providing food for the needy. Kelley notes that he continues to teach and use the older hymns in his ministry and choir and applies what he learned from working with Caesar, including always telling his choir the following advice he received from her: "Make sure you feel what you're doing because if don't feel it, no one else will."

As the program states, "It's Your Time, You've been faithful, you've been true and you done all you can do, and for your faithfulness, It's Your Time" ("A Lovefest" program). Less than two years later, Caesar died of cancer on October 14, 2006; undoubtedly, she would have been pleased with the news article in the Monroe New-Star on her passing (Gunter 2B): "Gospel singer Caesar dies at 63."

Works Cited

Bailey, Ben E. "The Lined-Hymn Tradition in Black Mississippi Churches." The Black Perspective in Music, 6. 1 (1978): 3-17. Web. 30. Dec. 2013.

Caesar, Penola. Demonstration Interview with Susan Roach for Teachers. Louisiana Voices Institute. 12 June 2001.

---. Old Timers Church Songs Featuring Penola Caesar. NG Audio, 2004. CD.

---. "Dr. Watts, Chants, and Moans Seminar." (Recording). Trenton Baptist Church. 9 Sept. 2002.

---. "Language of the Soul." Unpublished booklet. Print.

---. "Seminar." Unpublished booklet. Print.

Cannon, Chuck. "Penola Caesar Brings Glory to Folklife." News-Star [Monroe, LA] 14 Sept. 2002: 1B. Print.

Dargan, William T. Lining out the Word: Dr. Watts Hymn Singing in the Music of Black Americans. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.

---. "Congregational Singing Traditions in South Carolina." Black Music Research Journal 15.1 (1995): 29-73. Web. 30 Dec. 2013.

Gunter, Johnny. "Gospel Singer Caesar Dies at 63." News-Star [Monroe, LA] 15 Oct. 2006: 2B. Print.

Kelley, Seane. Personal communication. 8 January 2014.

McKenna, Magin. "Hymns of Many Emotions: Penola Caesar Sings Her Way into People's Hearts." News-Star [Monroe, LA] 25 July 2004: 1B. Print.

Rushing, Eleanor. "She Raises Her Voice to God and for the Masses." News-Star [Monroe, LA] 22 August 1998: 1B. Print.

With a Ph. D. in folklore from the University of Texas at Austin, Susan Roach served as Regional Folklorist from 1998-2009, and now serves as Director of the School of Literature and Language at Louisiana Tech University. This article was written for the Delta Folklife Project and the 2012 Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife.