Reverend Frank Newsome

Old Regular Baptist hymns
Haysi, Virginia

 Photo by: Pat Jarrett

Photo by: Pat Jarrett

An elder in the Old Regular Baptist Church, Frank Newsome is a master practitioner of lined-out hymn singing, one of the oldest musical traditions in Virginia. Newsome was born in 1942 in Pike County, Kentucky, where his father worked as a coal miner. One of twenty-two children, Newsome attended Old Regular Baptist Church services as a child with his mother. He settled in Virginia at about the age of twenty and worked in the coal mines. After more than seventeen years, Newsome contracted black lung disease and left the mines. He took up new responsibilities at his church, using his vocal prowess to lead his congregation in hymn singing and as a preacher. He preaches at the Little David Old Regular Baptist Church in Buchanan County, Virginia. A small, tightly knit denomination located primarily in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia, Old Regular Baptists maintain the tradition of permitting no musical accompaniment in their services. Instead, the congregation sings a cappella, with a preacher or elder singing a line of a hymn and the congregation repeating the same line in a mournful blend of voices. Because Old Regular Baptist churches remain in only a small geographic area, this musical genre is not well known outside the region. Yet despite the music’s relative obscurity, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Newsome the National Heritage Fellowship in 2011, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon traditional artists. This past year, Free Dirt Records reissued Gone Away with a Friend, an album of Newsome’s singing produced by the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities, which marks one of the few times that a leader of this singing style has been recorded. With the album’s re-release, Elder Frank has recently received some rather unfamiliar attention, including an appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air and a feature article in Billboard Magazine. Still, his newfound notoriety hasn’t gone to his head: “I’m not doing this for no big name or no pat on the back,” Frank said. “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.”