Black Lung Disease Can't Keep Frank Newsome From Singing Hymns

Jun 26, 2018
Originally published on July 2, 2018 11:14 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest, Frank Newsome, sings in a style that's one of America's oldest musical traditions - lined-out hymn singing. The hymns are sung a cappella with a leader singing out the first line of the song, which is then sung back by the congregation. Lined-out singing has its roots in 17th century England and is still sung in Appalachia and churches of the denomination Old Regular Baptist. Frank Newsome is a minister of one of those churches in Haysi, Va. It's called the Little David Church. If you're familiar with Ralph Stanley's version of the song "O Death" from the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou," you'll hear some similarities in Newsome's singing. In fact, they were friends and neighbors, and Newsome sang at Ralph Stanley's funeral.

Newsome was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship for his singing in 2011. Frank Newsome has a CD called "Gone Away With A Friend." The songs were recorded at his church in 2006, and the CD is now widely released. It's pretty amazing how powerful his voice is considering he was diagnosed with black lung disease in 1972 after working in Virginia's coal mines for 17 years. He was born in 1942 in Pike County, Ky., one of 22 children. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with the hymn "Beulah Land" from Newsome's CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEULAH LAND")

FRANK NEWSOME: (Singing) I'm kind of homesick for a country to which I ain't never been before. No sad goodbyes will there by spoken, for time won't matter anymore. I'm looking now across the river.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Frank Newsome, welcome to FRESH AIR.

F. NEWSOME: Glad to be here.

BRIGER: So you recorded the songs for the CD in your own church, the Little David Church. Does it feel different to you to sing these songs in your church or at a festival?

F. NEWSOME: Well, I guess I ain't as scared or nervous in a church as I am anywhere else, you know?

BRIGER: Do you get scared singing out of your church?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah, yeah. I look at myself. I'm going to make a bad mistake.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

F. NEWSOME: And I don't want that.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about your life. You were born in 1942 in Kentucky, and...

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: You were one of 22 children. Is that right?

F. NEWSOME: Well, I thought it was 22, but it got it down to 20, yeah. I'm one out of 20 children.

BRIGER: And could you tell me about your home and where you lived?

F. NEWSOME: We lived in the head of a holler. My daddy had a big farm - 169 acres. And we was poor people. We had nothing much. We raised what we eat. My mother would can stuff in the summer to pull us through to the winter. My daddy - he worked on the WPA, he liked to call it, 50 cents a day.

BRIGER: So was there a lot of music in your family? Did you play an instrument as a kid?

F. NEWSOME: Oh, yeah, I learned to play a guitar when I was little. Yeah, I had three other brothers that could play. And one of them played at a radio station in Ohio - Wellston, Ohio. He had a show that he played for a long time on.

BRIGER: And you would play with him on that radio station in Ohio.

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: You moved up there when you were a little older to work in a saw mill. Is that correct?

F. NEWSOME: Right.

BRIGER: What kind of music would you play?

F. NEWSOME: Bluegrass. He was left-handed guitar player, and I was right-handed.

BRIGER: And I heard you built your first guitar when you were a kid. Is that correct?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah - got them nails in that board, and I got old steel wire from them there's cable wire, and I cut them off. I wrapped them around the nails and bent the nails over. More you bent the nails, tighter they would get. And I called it a guitar anyhow.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

F. NEWSOME: It made a sound (laughter).

BRIGER: Could you play it? You took a board, and you stuck nails in it and put...

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...Steel wire?

F. NEWSOME: I put it on my lap and everything, and I made a noise out of it.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: So when you were singing back on the radio with your brother, is that a similar way to the way you sing now?

F. NEWSOME: Pretty well, yeah. Oh, I sing bluegrass at the house for my grand- young 'uns.

BRIGER: Oh, you still play guitar?

F. NEWSOME: Oh, yeah. I know what to do, but I'm a little slow hitting the chords.

BRIGER: Well, I hope they forgive you for that.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: How many grandchildren do you have?

F. NEWSOME: I've got five grandchildren - four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

GERALDINE NEWSOME: You have five grandchildren.

F. NEWSOME: Five - OK. I was right - five grandchildren...

BRIGER: Who's that talking...

F. NEWSOME: ...And two...

BRIGER: ...In the background?

F. NEWSOME: That's my wife.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

F. NEWSOME: She's helping me.

BRIGER: Good thing she's there to correct you (laughter).

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. Oh, she's been my helpmate for a long time.

BRIGER: Well, that's good to hear.

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: Now, Ralph Stanley used to sometimes attend your church, and he would have you sing at his festivals.

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: So then when would you sing there?

F. NEWSOME: Every time he called me up on the stand, he'd want me to sing "Going Away With A Friend." And that's the one that he said when I preached his funeral...

BRIGER: You sang that as...

F. NEWSOME: ...That he wanted me to sing.

BRIGER: You sang that as his funeral?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: Were you close friends with him?

F. NEWSOME: Lord, yeah - for over 40 years we was.

BRIGER: And he would come to church, attend your church often?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. When he was able and wasn't tied up, he was there about every meeting time.

BRIGER: Well, why don't we hear the song, Frank, that you sang at Ralph Stanley's funeral? This is "Gone Away With A Friend," which is also on your CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONE AWAY WITH A FRIEND")

F. NEWSOME: (Singing) Gone away with a friend, someone closer than a brother, with somebody who loves you more than children, dad or mother. And he holds your very soul in the palm of his hand. Let it read on my tombstone, gone away with a friend. He's...

BRIGER: So you left Ohio, and you moved to Virginia, where your brothers got you a job working in a coal mine.

F. NEWSOME: Right.

BRIGER: It sounds like many people in your family worked in coal mines. And I read also that all the male members of your church, Little David Church, at some point worked in a coal mine. Did it feel like it was just inevitable that someday you would work in the mines as well?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. When my brother was working in a coal mine, my daddy working in a coal mine, I said to myself, when I grow up, I'll be working in the old coal mines. I worked for 20 - almost 20 years till I got in the shape I'm in now, and I can't hardly go now. But I'm glad. That's the only way you had to make a living back in the late '50s and the early '60s here in Virginia.

BRIGER: What was the work that you would do in the mines?

F. NEWSOME: I'd load cars - 2-ton cars with a No. 4 shovel. You got a dollar a car for the company that you worked for.

BRIGER: And did you enjoy this work?

F. NEWSOME: Lord, yeah. I enjoyed that work.

BRIGER: You worked for the mines for 17 years, but then you were diagnosed with black lung disease. And as the audience...

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...Can hear, it's hard for you to breathe sometimes. What's your health like now?

F. NEWSOME: It's a little bit better than what I have been. They got me on different medicine, and something is kindly (ph) helping me a little bit better than what it was.

BRIGER: Well, that's good. What do they have you on, a steroid or something?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. They got me on steroids. I take them every other day, and they're the breathing medicine.

BRIGER: Do you have an asthma medication or something, like...

F. NEWSOME: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...An inhaler?

F. NEWSOME: Right. I've got that.

BRIGER: Now, do you have to use an oxygen tank, as well?

F. NEWSOME: Oh, yeah. I use oxygen, but I ain't got it with me right now.

BRIGER: Well, I hope you don't need it while you're talking to us.

F. NEWSOME: I do, too.

(LAUGHTER)

F. NEWSOME: Oh, wee (ph).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Frank Newsome. His album of hymns is called "Gone Away With A Friend." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Frank Newsome, who has an album of hymns that's just been widely released called "Gone Away With A Friend." Newsome was diagnosed with black lung disease in 1972 after working in the Virginia coal mines for 17 years.

BRIGER: It's amazing to me to think that you have black lung disease, which you describe as suffocating, but you're still able to sing these hymns with such power.

F. NEWSOME: I'm glad you said that. Everybody tells me that. You know, for some reason, I can't explain it. I don't have the breath, hardly. When I walk up on the stand, I have to stand there a minute or two before I can talk. And, you know, when I go to singing, seemed like my voice as loud as it ever was. And they say, well, you done good to be smothering like you did. I said, well, it come from a higher power.

BRIGER: Now, you've said that coal mining was a good job for you. You liked the work, and it made it possible for you to make a living and provide for your family. But it also sounds like it did a lot of harm to your body. Putting those facts on either side of a scale, how does it balance out for you?

F. NEWSOME: When I was working in the mines, they had the big fans blowing good air in there. You had to stay busy sometimes, or you'd get a little cold. And I stayed busy loading coal and trying to get my shift in so I could come outside and see the rest of them. And in a way, it was fun to me. I didn't know I'd get in this shape. Back then, I didn't pay no attention, but I see what it's done to me now. But if I had it to do over and I lived here, I'd do the same thing.

BRIGER: So you don't regret it.

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. I don't regret it.

BRIGER: Now, you said you came to be saved while you were working in the coal mines. Can you talk about that?

F. NEWSOME: Yes. I got in trouble on account of my sins, and when I quit loading coal in the car, they put me on the motor to hook to the cars, and take them to the outside, and dump them, and bring them back to where they could load again and get another load. Well, every break that I got, I was in trouble on account of my sins, the wrong that I had done between me and the Lord. I didn't want to die in that shape because I know where I'd go - my soul. I began to get off in the motor and go down in a break. A break is another place where they done mined out. And I tried to pray to the good Lord to have mercy upon me. Lord, save my soul. I don't want to die like this. I kept on, kept on till I give it all into the hands of the good Lord. Lord, here I am. Save my soul or I'm gone. And that's when I felt that he come into my life - was that day.

BRIGER: And then from then on, you started preaching at the Little David Church. Is that...

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. Later on, a year or two, I started preaching and telling the people the life that I used to live. I don't like it no more. Give me the life I've got now.

BRIGER: So after you were saved and you started preaching - and you had said that you were asking forgiveness for some of the sins that you felt that you had committed in life - did you - when you were preaching, did you talk about those sins that you had committed?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. I told them that I'd used God's name in vain a few times. I'd done other things that I wish I hadn't done. But I guess that's the nature of everybody growing up. In my lifetime, I'm just going to tell the truth. I have stole cigarettes out of people's car to smoke. I didn't have the money to buy them, and I stole a pack time or two, all that. And all them things was wrong, wasn't right, and I didn't feel safe the shape I was in.

BRIGER: So a lot of the songs that you sing, a lot of the hymns, are about the troubles of life and the hardship that people deal with when they're alive. And it's about looking forward to getting to heaven and seeing the loved ones that have gone on ahead. And, you know, you started singing these songs when you were very young. You're now in your mid-70s and you have health issues. Do the words of these songs have a different meaning for you now?

F. NEWSOME: Yes. They're more sweeter to me, and I understand it better. Now, like "Amazing Grace," "There Is No Other Fountain," "Gone Away With A Friend," "Treasures That Money Can't Buy," and "Beulah Land" means more to me than what they used to when I was real young. It's got the old-time sound that there ain't another sound under heaven like it. It's a sound that you can't, when the Lord bless you, that you can't put music with it.

BRIGER: I have to say that some of your singing gives me the shivers in a good way.

F. NEWSOME: (Laughter).

BRIGER: People say that to you?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah, Lord, yeah. Oh, they'd come up to me, and they'd say, oh, you made the hairs stand up on my head and my arms. But I say, well, good. That's what it's all about.

BRIGER: Well, I'd like to end with one more song from your album. It's called "Long Black Train," and, you know, some of the songs that you sing are hundreds of years old, but this is a new song. It's written by singer-songwriter Josh Turner. Why don't we hear it? Frank Newsome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

F. NEWSOME: Oh, you're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG BLACK TRAIN")

F. NEWSOME: (Singing) Burning your ticket for that long black train. 'Cause there's victory in the Lord, I say, victory in the Lord. Cling to the father and his holy name. And don't go riding on that long black train. There's an engineer...

GROSS: Frank Newsome spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Newsome's album of hymns is called "Gone Away With A Friend." After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new BBC miniseries starring Hugh Grant. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNE METTE IVERSEN QUARTET'S "THE TERRACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.