Rock Hill — Before Booker T. Cathcart was buried Saturday, there was a funeral where people had to be turned away from the overflowing sanctuary – not because Cathcart was famous, or a big shot, but because of the voice.
For more than 80 years, people heard gospel music sung by this man who came out of a sharecropper’s field on the old Rawlinson Farm and worked to make his living as a janitor and factory line worker.
They heard him in churches in York County – and as far away as New York and Washington and Baltimore – and on records carried all over the world.
A thousand times, Cathcart traveled down dusty dirt roads to find a country church filled with ears that wanted the Word that he could bring.
And bring it he did.
“Those audiences, Daddy would tell them as he started to bounce and sing, ‘If you push me, I will go!,’” recalled Beaufort Cathcart, one of the nine Cathcart children who grew up with the father who was a legend in black gospel music – but almost unknown elsewhere.
“The crowd couldn’t get enough. He would take them somewhere.”
Every song sung by the choirs at the funeral were songs Cathcart sang himself a million times – songs that he and so many people sang in the cotton fields six days a week and in churches on Sundays back during the Great Depression.
The songs were a part of the people, straight out of slavery days, and few – if any – sang it like “Book,” said Arthur Cathcart, another son.
“I’m 62 years old, and all my life, I heard people say that nobody sang gospel like Booker T.,” said Arthur Cathcart. “He had the voice and he had the spirit and he had the love.”
Booker T. Cathcart left the fields to work first at the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. for 30 years, then another 10 years on the bottling line at the old Pepsi plant.
Nights and weekends, Cathcart sang. Not occasionally, not sometimes, but almost every weekend, somewhere. Churches clamored for him to sing. He even recorded a few records decades ago on those old 45 rpm records.
Back in 2002, as part of the Together as One Hymn Choir, Cathcart received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in South Carolina.
The gospel group, honored for common meter spirituals that require no instruments other than the voices of men and women, was recorded singing at the Boyd Hill Baptist Church – the same place where the crowd tried to get in Saturday to hear the music when Cathcart was eulogized.
Sharing the award that year in 2002 was a man from South Carolina who also sang a little bit for a few years – James Brown. That’s the kind of company Booker T. Cathcart kept when it came to the importance of music.
Yet the era of that old gospel sung by the likes of Cathcart is about long-gone. Just a few groups ply down dusty back roads anymore toward those country churches.
But even into his 90s, Cathcart would sing when he had the energy.
“Strike up a hymn,” somebody would ask, at a church or a reunion or anywhere, and Book would do it.
He sang at the senior center, he sang to his hospice nurse. He sang almost until he died last week at the age of 92.
Then when the funeral started, the music was played again for the last time, songs sung in the old style, by people who were inspired and taught by Booker T. Cathcart himself.