Reverend Frank Newsome

Reverend Frank Newsome

Reverend 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 evident than in their tradition of lined-out hymnody – a sound at once ancient yet immediate.

Because Old Regular Baptist Church doctrine forbids musical accompaniment in their services, the congregation sings a cappella, a style once the mainstay of 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 tradition. One of the finest practitioners ever to lend his voice to this traditional singing style is Reverend Frank Newsome.

Frank Newsome was born on November 15, 1942, in Pike County, Kentucky, where his father worked as a coal miner. Frank began attending Old Regular services with his mother as a child. 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, where Mr. Newsome played guitar and sang with his brother to tunes from early country music stalwarts such as the Stanley Brothers and Hank Williams.

By the time he was 20 years old, Mr. Newsome had moved to Virginia to work in the coal mines. He had his experience of Grace while mining in 1963 and began to preach at the Little David Baptist Church soon after. Frank put over seventeen years “under the mountain” before he contracted the dreaded black lung disease, an all too common affliction for those who toiled underground. The black lung, however, seems not to have diminished Frank’s vocal prowess.

Several years ago, Frank Newsome was recorded on CD with Grammy-winning recording artist Jim Lauderdale. Lauderdale first heard Frank sing at the festival of bluegrass legend (and National Heritage Fellow) Dr. Ralph Stanley. Dr. Stanley, a neighbor and periodic attendee of Little David Church, has taken to having Reverend Newsome open his festival with one of his hymns. The connection between the two musicians goes way back, and one can hear much of Reverend Newsome’s style and intonation in Dr. Stanley’s bluegrass singing.

The Virginia Folklife Program recorded Reverend Newsome singing from his pulpit and produced Gone Away With Friend as part of the Crooked Road CD Series. In the past few years he has been presented at a number of festivals, including the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and the National Folk Festival in Richmond. None of this recent attention, however, has seemed to affect his humble approach to singing or his ultimate spiritual motivations.

2009 Virginia Heritage Award Winners