A few years back at his Hills of Home Festival in Coeburn, Virginia, Ralph Stanley brought out a special guest during his set that he and his wife Jimmie wanted us to hear. There, alone on that stage, Frank Newsome sang “Gone Away With a Friend.” I’m sure there were many others like me who were riveted and had a profound experience. On many levels it was one of the most powerful, spiritual, mournful, emotional, beautiful, and hopeful things I have ever heard. There is a purity about Frank’s singing that brings a soul-stirring, heart-tugging peacefulness that is beyond words. This music comes through Frank from a different, bigger place. Frank is a humble man of God with a wonderful family that is never far away. We gathered together where they worship, at the Little David Church outside of Haysi, to record him singing at his pulpit. On that night in late May his family called out requests and we cried and rejoiced together.
Hearing Frank is a real blessing.
Elder Frank Newsome preaches at the Little David Church in Buchanan County Virginia, where he has lived for the better part of 45 years. Frank and his congregation are part of a sub-denomination of the Baptist Church known as Old Regular Baptists. While their numbers are comparatively small, their rural locations, predominantly around the shared borders of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, and their strict adherence to church doctrine have helped the Old Regular Baptists to maintain many of their religious folkways. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in their tradition of lined-out hymnody — a sound at once seemingly ancient yet palpably immediate. Because Old Regular Baptist Church doctrine forbids musical accompaniment in their services, the congregation sings a cappella, a style once the mainstay in many denominations in America and Europe. This tradition consists of a preacher—often referred to as an elder—singing a line of hymn, and the congregation repeating the same line in a mournful blend of voices. This style and practice was particularly well suited to the demands of the early churches, its call and response format allowing participation from those in attendance, many of whom could not read words or musical notation. The Old Regular Baptists are among the last practitioners of this beautiful religious song tradition.
The Old Regular Baptists base their religious observances and their moral code in daily life on a literal interpretation of the Bible. One defining belief of the Old Regular Baptist Church concerns man’s attainment of salvation from God. They believe that man cannot receive salvation and redemption until God calls. Because each person must answer God’s call only when it comes, they see no need to attempt to convert or otherwise act as missionaries. Visitors are made to feel quite welcome in Old Regular Baptist services, but no particular effort is made to get them there; the business of saving souls is left to God. Similarly, the Old Regulars offer no Sunday Schools for their children. Children attending services in many Old Regular Baptist churches are allowed to roam about freely. Unlike in most denominations, baptisms usually occur later in life, often into a person’s 50′s and 60′s. Once again, it is not a parishioners’ choice to become saved, but rather an event to experience whenever God offers it.
As the New Testament contains no reference to musical instruments in worship, the Old Regular Baptists forbid their use. This belief is traceable back to Calvinist theology of the Protestant Reformation. While almost every other denomination has “modernized” itself in the 500-plus years since the Reformation, the Old Regulars steadfastly hold to the early conviction. Like their musical cousins, the shape-note singers, they have helped to preserve the art of the American folk hymn in a way that almost certainly would have been lost decades ago, if not for their stubborn insistence on keeping alive the “old ways” that they and their forebears embraced and continue to share and teach.
Frank Newsome was born to Harvey and Katie Newsome on November 15, 1942, in Pike County, Kentucky, where Harvey worked as a coal miner. Frank began attending Old Regular services with his mother as a child, as he recalls, “We used to walk over four miles just on Saturday and Sunday going to church. I just been going to it all my life, practically, from a little boy on up.”
One of 22 children, Frank moved around a good bit before settling down in Virginia, including a stint in Ohio with his brother Johnny in 1961. There the brothers found work in a sawmill, and also performed on a radio station, with Frank playing guitar and singing with his brother to songs from early country music stalwarts such as the Stanley Brothers and Hank Williams. By the time he was about 20 years old, Frank moved to Virginia to work in the coal mines. Soon after he met his future wife Geraldine. As he put it, “I got a job and met a pretty young blonde-headed woman and I married her and I been here ever since. She’s still a pretty blonde headed woman.
The demanding physical labor of the coalmines had its rewards, as Frank remembers:
Back then I got a dollar a car, loading coal with a # 4 shovel. The cars would hold about two tons. If you loaded 15 of ‘em, that was big money back in the late ’50s and early 60s. I’d load 15 to 20 a day like that. That was some hard work. A lot of times it was dark when I went in and dark when I came out.
Frank had his experience of Grace while mining in 1963:
I was working in the coal mines and I just began to study over my life. When you’re between two rocks, when you go under the mountain you don’t know whether you’re going to see daylight again or not. I just began to look up and talk to the Good Lord to have mercy upon me and bless me to get out and see my family again. Every day I’d do that and I just kept begging Him and begging Him, and asking Him to forgive me for the wrongs that I’ve done. When I felt that in 1963, when He forgive me and when He set my soul free, I told the brethren, “I give my hand to join the church,” and I’ve been a member ever since of this Old Regular Baptist family.
Frank put in 17 and a half years “under the mountain,” before he contracted the dreaded black lung disease, an all too common affliction for those who toiled underground. February 12, 1976 was his last day:
I got mashed up twice in the mines, in rock falls, and it totally disabled me, and I ain’t worked none at a public job since then. Every day or every week you’d hear of somebody, a rock falling on ‘em and taking their life, one or two getting killed like that. About all of the male members of our congregation worked in the coal mines.
In the midst of a life of hard labor and frequent tragedy, it is easy to see how the plaintive and sad sounding hymns of these churches would strike a chord with congregants, as they seek comfort with promises of the better world to come. After leaving the mines, Frank was drawn to the church, and eventually felt compelled to preach.
I prayed for the Good Lord to forgive me the wrongs that I done. When I felt that, when I joined the church, then I thought everything was all right. Then I felt another burden come up on me that I felt was the calling of the Lord to warn the people of the danger of living and dying in sin, to tell ‘em to do right, get right with the Lord, talk to Him. Ever since 1972, I’ve been a minister.
Elders in the Old Regular Baptist tradition are called to preach. Selected by the congregation, they receive no formal training. They are judged by their ability to, as Frank puts it, “gather ‘em in rather than scatter ‘em off.”.
A key aspect of being an Old Regular Baptist preacher is performing Baptisms. Baptisms at the Little David Church take place in the McClure River, year-round, regardless of the weather. “I have broke the ice—cut the ice out—to get in the water and baptize ‘em. Some say ‘You’ll get sick and die’ but I say if you feel right with the Lord, that water ain’t gonna hurt you.”
For Frank, his preaching and singing comes directly from the heart.
When we’re in service and when the preacher is blessed with the spirit of God Almighty to preach with, you’ll feel something different than you’ll ever feel in your life, when that spirit comes of the Almighty God.
Out of the spirited services comes a song tradition of startling grace and poignancy. Because of the comparatively small geographic area where Old Regular Baptist churches do remain, the sound of this American musical treasure is not well known. The only widely available recordings extant are two Smithsonian Folkways releases of congregational singing recorded in Kentucky in the early 1990s. The paucity of recordings of this style alone makes these recordings particularly significant. These recordings, made at Little David Church one summer evening, features only Frank Newsome’s a cappella voice, perhaps one of the only times a leader of this singing style has been recorded in this way, providing a unique perspective into the texts of these old cherished hymns. Along with the traditional hymns, Frank chose to include two contemporary numbers in this recording, and they couldn’t sound any better than they do in his possession. This recording closes with a prayer that Frank spontaneously offered for those gathered at the recording session.
A careful ear can trace how this more than 400-year-old musical tradition has cast its influence over the ensuing centuries. Strains of it show up in the Old Time music often performed and recorded in this region, and then again as that music spawned bluegrass music near the middle of the last century. Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley grew up and still resides in the middle of Old Regular Baptist country, and its influence can be clearly heard in his singing. In fact, Frank Newsome and Ralph Stanley have been good friends for more than 30 years, sometimes worshipping and singing together.
Finally, though, this music is most important to those who continue to sing and cherish it. Their staunch refusal to live by the ways of a more modern musical world has profited not only their spirits, but also the spirits of their countrymen, and has kept alive a notable American spiritual folk song tradition. The music of Frank Newsome and the Old Regular Baptist singers is an inspiration to all who meet trouble in their lives, and a solace to all who one day will. It reminds listeners about that which is truly important beyond wealth, possessions, or fame—namely the integrity to live within the bounds of what seems right, regardless of the pull of the world and her fleeting fortunes. We must thank the Little David Church and Elder Frank Newsome for sharing his beautiful gift with us. The last word belongs to him:
I’m doing this all for the Little David Church to try and make things a little better. I most of all want to thank God Almighty that He’s given me the gift that He has to sing, and if it will profit anybody anything, if it’ll cause them to turn from their sins unto the Good Lord, then it’s worth every bit of it. I’m not doing this for no big name or no pat on the back. No, I don’t want that. I’m just an old country feller. I ain’t got nothing and I ain’t looking for nothing, but I believe I’ve got a home in Heaven when I leave here.