An elder in the Old Baptist Church, Frank Newsome is a proponent of lined-out hymn singing, one of the deepest and oldest musical traditions of Virginia. Newsome was born in 1942 in Pike County, Kentucky, where his father worked as a coal miner. One of 22 children, Newsome began attending Old Regular Baptist church services as a child with his mother. He settled in Virginia around the age of 20 and worked in the coal mines. After more than 17 years, Newsome contracted black lung disease and left the mines but took up new responsibilities at his church, using his vocal prowess to lead his congregation as a preacher and in the singing of hymns. Currently, he preaches at the Little David Old Regular Baptist Church in Buchanan County, Virginia.
Primarily located in Appalachian rural locations, Old Regular Baptists maintain the tradition of no musical accompaniment in their services. Instead, the congregation sings a capella with a preacher or elder singing a line of a hymn and the congregation repeating the same line in a mournful blend of voices. Due to the small geographic area where Old Regular Baptist churches remain, this musical genre is not well known and recordings made at Little David Church featuring Newsome's a cappella voice is one of the few times that a leader of this singing style has ever been recorded.
The influence of Old Regular Baptist singing can be heard in the old time music performed in the region as well as bluegrass music. Frequent Little David Church attendee, bluegrass legend, and NEA National Heritage Fellow Ralph Stanley has helped to draw attention to this art form by inviting Newsome to sing at his music festival. Newsome has also performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and at the 2007 National Folk Festival in Richmond.
Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA
September 21, 2011
Edited by Neena Narayanan and Liz Stark
NEA: Let's begin at the beginning. Tell me where you were born?
Frank Newsome: In Pike County, Kentucky, 1942.
NEA:That was 1942, so you were born at the beginning of a war.
Newsome: Yeah, it was going on hot and heavy at that time in '42.
NEA: Is it a small town? Is it out in the country?
Newsome: No, Pikeville is a pretty big place -- by our standards. You know, where I live at now, we're next to Haysi, Virginia, there ain't nothing there. It used to be a blooming town when the coal was really big -- trucks moving and all of the mines going–you could hardly walk the streets at that time. But now, you have no problem. All you have to do is watch for a car coming by. I got married in 1962. I met my wife in Virginia and been there ever since. We've been married 50 years, a half-a-century.
NEA: Congratulations to both of you, Geraldine and Frank. So you were part of a large family.
Newsome: Yes, I'm one out of 22 children. My mommy gave birth to 20 children and two miscarriages. There are five boys and four girls living now.
NEA: In the midst of the 20, where were you?
Newsome: I'm going to say in the middle.
NEA: Did you come from a musical family? I would imagine with so many of you, you would be entertaining each other.
Newsome: Me and my brother played music. I still got three guitars in the house that I play for the grand-youngins. My brothers and I played on the radio station, in Wellston, Ohio, WKOV. I remember that well. I was a single man then.
NEA: How did you get your first guitar, Frank?
Newsome: My daddy had a big stack of lumber, all big wide boards. I got that and I drove six nails on the bottom of it and bent them over. I went up to the top and drove six more nails. And for the strings, I didn't have money to go to the store to buy strings, so I used old big steel cables. I took work pliers and tied them round and bent it over real good, as tight as I could get it. Thought I was playing just as good as anybody with it.
I have no education. Fifth grade is as high as I went. Of course, I had to walk too far, four miles one way from where we lived and the head in the holler, to the little two-room school. But, you know, us young kids, we were used to work. We worked in a corn field from daylight to dark. We raised what we ate. We didn't run to the store. Like now, if you want a sandwich you run down to Hardy's or McDonald's and get you one. We didn't have that.
NEA: What kind of food did your parents grow? What did you eat when you were a kid?
Newsome: We raised our own stuff that we ate. We had big bean patch of green beans. I ate them so much growing up that I got sick of them. We put out a late patch and when they came in we'd pick them and strain them. Mommy would can like 100 cans to feed us through the winter. That and cornbread. And brown beans. Back then they were soup beans, but today they call them brown beans. We had hogs and chickens and a milk cow. Back then, you'd kill a hog then soak that meat down real good and mommy would take a knife and cut way down in that meat and just fill it plum full of salt. That would keep the meat and preserve it. Today I wouldn't eat at all if I knew it wasn't on ice or something. Anyhow, we had plenty to eat. We had nothing fancy in our house, but Lord, we were so proud of it. My mommy could cook anything you asked her. She could make some of the best homemade soup. I'm still hungry for it and mommy's been gone 20 years. She was a hardworking woman. She loved us. She showed no difference between one and the other. If one got hurt, Mommy hurt for them.
Daddy would go and work all week, he had to go across the hill and he'd stay away from home all week when he worked in the mines, the old Ligon mines in Floyd County, Kentucky. Times were hard but it was lovely. Dad had a farm, well, not a farm, a hillside, 169 acres. If we weren't in one spot, we were in another spot.
When I left home I went to Ohio and stayed with my brother. I went to school about a year. Got a job on a sawmill, $1 an hour. Lord that was hard work. Out on the hill, this man would buy a track of timber and we'd set the sawmill up until we sawed all of it -- three or four acres or five acres maybe. Then, when it got all of that cut down and sawed up and moved out we moved to another side of the hill. That's the way they did it. Boy, I couldn't wait to see Friday evening come.
Then when I come back to visit my mommy and daddy in 1961, it was on Thanksgiving. I stayed there about a week. I had my own car so I went to the state of Virginia. I had two brothers living over there where Geraldine was raised up. They were working in the mines. So my brothers said, "I'll get you a job at Logan Coal out where I am." The first day I loaded seven cars. Lord have mercy, I thought I was going to die. That between two rocks and coal, 30-inch coal, rock on the bottom and rock above, and coal in between. Well, the next day I went out, oh God, I was so sore. Lord, I couldn't hardly move. I said, "What do you do boys? I'm so sore I can't walk." "Work it out of you." And so that's what I did. I got up to where I could make $15 a day loading them big two-ton cars with the number four shovel. That was big money. Back at that time, that was money. I was only making $15 a day when we got married.
B&L Furniture Company in Grundy, Virginia, had a sale on a honeymoon special. That's what they called it. Three rooms of complete furniture: bed, couch, loveseat, Frigidaire, and a stove. End tables and a chair; that was it. No television. Anyhow, I gave [Geraldine] the money and I said, "You go back and make a payment down on that." And that's what we did. Weren't even married yet. Then I kept on working until we got it paid off. I got my house built. We built three rooms in the house, no partitions or nothing when we first moved in it. But back then that looked real nice. It had no bathrooms; they were outside. No running water. During the winter when it got cold with big snow, I'd come in from work and bathe in an old big wash tub. She would have to heat the water on top of the heater we had to heat the house. We just had good times. We lived like kings at that time and yet had nothing. Let me re-phrase that. We had love and serving the Almighty God and that made a home.
NEA: Let me ask you, when did you start singing? You sang when you were a kid, but when did you start singing publicly?
Newsome: Well, I guess I always thought I could sing pretty good. When I was single I didn't sing too much. I sang to myself. Then when we got married and I repented and I felt in my soul that God had forgiven me, it was a different feeling. It made me so happy and I started singing in the church lined out songs, "Amazing Grace," "Tarry With Me oh My Savoir," "How Great Thou Are." And the more I sung, the more that I got my life into it and asking the Lord to help me, give me understanding and wisdom. I don't have education. I can't read music, I go by the sound. There's nothing like the sound when God blesses you with his spirit to sing with. It just sets you free.
Jim Lauderdale is great friend of mine. He and Jon Lohman are the ones that came to my home church, to the little town of Haysi. Jim Lauderdale is one of the big fellows in Nashville, Tennessee. The first time he heard me was at Dr. Ralph Stanley's. Ralph had been wanting me to come up there a long time. Ralph had told Jim Lauderdale, "I want you to hang around a few minutes. I've got a guest I want you to hear." When he called me out, Lord, I was so nervous. But I'm telling you, the same thing happened again, as if I was blessed to sing that song "Going Away with a Friend." I wish I could sing it again like I did that day. I never see the people cry like that, coming up after, shaking my hand, saying, "Lord, I've never heard nothing like that in all of my life." I walked out and there stood Jim Lauderdale. Right up to me he went and said, "Lord have mercy, do you have a copy of that song that you just sung?" He was crying. I said, "I'll do you better than that, I'll just give you my songbook." I showed him where the song was. From that day to this day, he's been like a natural brother to me. Jon Lohman is another fine fellow; just like my natural brother he has helped me. If it wasn't for them and the good old Lord above, I'd have never been where I'm at now.
NEA: Frank, tell me, you'd be working in the mines, and you would go to church on Sunday and sing then?
Newsome: Yeah. Go on Saturday and Sunday. See, the Old Regular Baptists, we have two days of service: Saturday morning and Sunday. Saturday is when all of the members is supposed to meet together to show their love and fellowship, to fill their seat in the church and do church work. On Sunday, we have a regular meeting. We start singing at 9:30, at 10 o'clock we start preaching, we got several preachers there. We hold prayer. We'll use about two or three preachers after that, then we close the service.
NEA: How many people are in the church?
Newsome: My home church now? Our total membership right now, I think, is 91? But Lord on Sunday we have to set chairs out before the crowd comes in.
NEA: And the Old Regular Baptist church that you belong to, there's singing, but there's no musical accompaniment. There are no instruments.
Newsome: No organ or nothing.
NEA: I'm curious about how you made your CD "The Crooked Road." How did that happen?
Newsome: Jim Lauderdale called me up. He said, "I'm coming to your church. I'm going to record you. I need to record you and get some of that." Well, John Lohman, Jim Lauderdale, and Mike Seeger, they taped me down. I sung 22 songs that night. Back then I had the breath that done pretty good, and closed out with prayer -- it's on that CD. "Going Away With a Friend" is the name of it.
NEA: How did you find out, Frank, that you got an NEA National Heritage Fellowship?
Newsome: Barry Bergey [NEA Director, Folk and Traditional Arts] called. He said, "You have won the biggest award that's given out in the United States." I said, "I did?" Now this is the way I said it. I said, "I can't hear too good. You talk to my wife." I thought it was a prank call. And he talked to my wife. We had to sit down after and think about it. It was real. I went to crying.