December 31, 2015
Carrie Newcomer
A Conversation with Music

Something of a celebrity in Quaker circles, Carrie Newcomer is best known for her story-songs that get at the raw and redemptive edges of human reality. This week, a musical conversation with the Indiana-based and born folk singer-songwriter who’s been called a “prairie mystic.” She writes and sings about the grittiness of hope and the ease of cynicism.

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is a singer-songwriter. Her albums include Betty’s Diner, The Gathering of Spirits, and A Permeable Life, which has an accompanying book of poetry and essays.

Transcript

December 31, 2015

[music: “A Light in the Window” by Carrie Newcomer]

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Today, a musical conversation with folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

[music: “A Light in the Window” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. TIPPETT: Indiana-born and based, Carrie Newcomer has been called a “prairie mystic.” She’s best known for her story-songs like “Betty’s Diner,” that get at raw and redemptive edges of human reality. She’s also an interesting collaborator in writing and performance with author and educator Parker Palmer, novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor.

[music: “A Light in the Window” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. I welcomed Carrie Newcomer and her guitar to the On Being studios on Loring Park in Minneapolis in 2014, before a live audience.

MS. TIPPETT: So, welcome to On Being on Loring Park. It’s so wonderful to have Carrie Newcomer here. You’re something of a celebrity in Quaker circles.

[laughter]

MS. CARRIE NEWCOMER: Well, I’ve never heard that before.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

[laughter]

MS. NEWCOMER: It’s OK. It’s kind of a phrase that you don’t usually see paired together.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I know, but people often, I notice that journalists often refer to you as a Quaker singer. But, I wasn’t sure of this until I started to delve into this, that you weren’t raised Quaker. That wasn’t the religious background of your childhood. So would you talk about what that was and how you came to this tradition.

MS. NEWCOMER: Well, I was raised in Northern Indiana. I’m a Hoosier, which impresses people everywhere.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: As much as being a Quaker celebrity?

[laughter]

MS. NEWCOMER: It’s right up there. But my mom was raised Catholic. She’s a first generation American from an Italian family. And my father was raised Methodist, but his family background was Mennonite, Amish. So I think I’m the only like Italian-Amish person on the planet, I think.

[laughter]

MS. NEWCOMER: Except my sisters. But other than that it’s just me. But I was kind of raised, in a basic Protestant-Methodist church later on. Eventually I was doing a service semester for the college I was going to in Costa Rica, and I encountered the silent — unprogrammed Quakers there in Monteverde. But it felt like home. And people will ask me often is that “you’re a musician, you make your life in sound, and you go to a silent Quaker meeting. What’s with that?” But it makes all the sense in the world that my best language has always come out of the silence.

MS. TIPPETT: So, here’s a sentence you wrote. “Music approaches the sacred through the wordless avenues of the heart.” And I wonder, how and when in your life did you discover music and discover that music does that.

MS. NEWCOMER: I think I do sit with the silent Quakers, but I think my most consistent and deep spiritual practice has been songwriting. And when I became a teenager I fell in love with the singing poets. Those people who were …

MS. TIPPETT: Like who?

MS. NEWCOMER: Joni Mitchell.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: Dylan, when I was feeling …

MS. TIPPETT: Leonard Cohen, maybe.

MS. NEWCOMER: Leonard Cohen. All these people who were combining beautiful poetry and music. And I fell in love with that. So I picked up the guitar. But that idea of music being a spiritual practice that kind of evolved. Because to be a songwriter I had to develop and practice some of the things that I think belong to the idea of spiritual practice. I had to really start to practice presence. You have to be present. You have to show up.

MS. TIPPETT: To whatever you’re writing about?

MS. NEWCOMER: To whatever you’re writing, and to your whole life. Human story. We’re so amazing. People, we’re interesting, and we’re inspiring, and we’re bewildering, there’s something about that….

MS. TIPPETT: So you know what’s coming to mind when you’re saying that is “Betty’s Diner.”

MS. NEWCOMER: Ah.

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s a very wordy song, too.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yes, it is.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s not a wordless space.

MS. NEWCOMER: Lots of words.

MS. TIPPETT: But it’s really wonderful, and I think it’s kind of classic Carrie Newcomer, and I’m sure a lot of people here love it, too. So, would you play “Betty’s Diner?”

MS. NEWCOMER: Oh, sure.

MS. TIPPETT: And here’s a question I have for you as a musician, especially because your lyrics are so important, and you’ve written lots of songs over the years. I mean, if I asked you to play something, will you remember all the words?

[laughter]

Do you remember all the words of every song you’ve ever played over the last…

MS. NEWCOMER: Well…

MS. TIPPETT: …decades?

MS. NEWCOMER: …when you have a lot of songs trailing behind you, no.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: Some songs I might have to dust them off a little bit.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but not this one, probably.

MS. NEWCOMER: But, I think — yeah, I’ve got “Betty’s Diner.”

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MS. NEWCOMER: “Betty’s Diner” I think, came out of that love for people. I mean, I was traveling around and touring all over the country, and I think as a traveling folk singer, it’s not like you’re going from arena to arena.

[laughter]

MS. NEWCOMER: You see the world close up.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. NEWCOMER: And you hear stories close up. And, so I ended up writing this little song about “Betty’s Diner” about where community happens. And where the spirit of goodness moves in the world.

[singing] Miranda works the late night counter
A little joint called Betty’s Diner
Chrome and checkered tablecloths
And one steamy windowpane
She got the job that shaky fall
And after hours she’ll write till dawn
With a nod and smile she serves them all

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Arthur lets his Earl Grey steep
Since April it’s been hard to sleep
You know they tried most everything
But it took her in the end
And Kevin tests new saxophones
But he swears he’s leaving quality control
For the Chicago scene, or New Orleans
Where they still play righteous horns

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Jack studies here after work
To get past high school he’s the first
His big hands look comfortable
With a hammer or a pen
And Emma leaned and kissed his cheek
When she did his knees got weak
Miranda smiles at Em and winks

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

You never know who’ll be your witness
You never know who grants forgiveness
Look to heaven or sit with us

Deidra bites her lip and frowns
She works the Stop and Go downtown [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] It happened?

MS. NEWCOMER: It happened.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: It’s a lot of words.

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] Deidra bites her lip and frowns
She works the Stop and Go downtown
She’s pretty good at the crossword page
And she paints her eyes blue black
And Tristan comes along sometimes
Small for his age and he’s barely five
But she loves him like a mamma lion

And Veda used to drink a lot
Almost lost it all before she stopped
Comes in at night with her friend Mike
Who runs the crisis line

Michael toured Saigon and back
Hair the color of smoke and ash
Their heads are bowed, their hands are clasped
One more storm has passed

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

MS. TIPPETT: Thank you.

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today a musical conversation with folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

MS. TIPPETT: This phrase of yours that I love, the intimate link between creativity and spirituality, is beautiful, but it’s embodied spirituality, right? That’s what you do, right? It’s humanity with all its mess and its edges, and as you say, it’s bewilderment and beauty.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah, and I think I write a lot about finding something extraordinary in an ordinary day. Maybe even something sacred in an ordinary day. And I think about that a lot. And I write about it a lot. And I think there’s a longing out there for that kind of acknowledgement.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. NEWCOMER: That our daily lives are — they’re wondrous. And they’re valuable. And they’re honorable. The smallest things. So, I write about that a lot.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s something else you’ve said, that I’d love for you to tease out for us. The source of all things is the finest and first artist. I mean, there’s a piece of theology in there? You’re not using the word God, which is fine, but, I mean, when we talk about God anyway, in the most traditional contexts, we use metaphor. God is Father, God is Judge. I love God as Artist or the source of all things as Artist. And that really is, as I said, it’s a piece of theology.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah, I’ve always had a spiritual current to my work. Some people come to spiritual music and creating spiritual music through the church and some of us come through the bars. It’s a different way of getting there, but that idea that there is something shining in the world, there’s something shimmering just below the surface of things, always. The light in the world as being an artist, as being creative, curious, ahh. But that idea of curiosity, of question, and asking questions again, and sensing that something just shimmering below the surface of things and going, wow, what is that?

MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me this song that’s the first song on your new CD, “Every Little Bit of It.”

MS. NEWCOMER: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a great line in it. I thought I knew the question, but I guess not. I really liked that, too, that finding better questions is a sacred act. Do you want to sing that one too?

MS. NEWCOMER: Sure, I could sing that.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I think that song touches on a lot of the things we’re talking about. Does it touch on that?

MS. NEWCOMER: I think so, yeah. I think it does.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: A lot of this song — there was a section of this song that came out of conversation I was having with a mutual friend, Parker Palmer. We…

MS. TIPPETT: Another celebrity Quaker.

[laughter]

In fact, you two may be it.

[laughter]

MS. NEWCOMER: I’m going to tell him you said so.

[laughter]

No, no, I really loved and enjoyed working with Parker. And some of our conversations have become songs. I’m turning on my guitar here. All right. I’m going to start again.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. It’s just like your living room, too.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah.
[singing] Just beyond my sight,
Something that I cannot see,
I’ve been circling round a thought,
That’s been circling round me.
Like the vapor of a song,
That is just out of earshot,
I thought I knew the question,
But I guess not.

There it is just below the surface of things,
In a flash of blue, and the turning of wings.
I drain the glass, drink it down, every moment
of this,
Every little bit of it, every little bit.

I swam against the tide,
I tripped on my own pride,
So I’ll try again today,
To get out of my own way.
The face was always in the stone,
Said Michelangelo,
You just have to chip and clear,
To see what is already there.

There it is, just below, the surface of things,
In a flash of blue, and the turning of wings.
I drain the glass, drink it down, every moment
of this,
Every little bit of it, every little bit.

There it is in the apple of every new notion,
There it is in the scar healed over what was broken,
In the branches, in the whispering, in the
silence and the sighs,
And the curious promise of limited time.

It’s true although it’s hard,
A shadow glides over the ridge.
And one fast beating heart,
Tries with all its might to live.
And we sense but can’t describe,
From the corner of our eyes
Something nameless and abiding,
And so we keep transcribing.

There it is just below the surface of things,
In a flash of blue, and the turning of wings.
I drain the glass, drink it down, every moment
of this,
Every little bit of it, every little bit.
Every little bit of this
Every little bit
Every little bit of it
Every little bit of it.

MS. TIPPETT: Thank you.

[applause]

I’m curious if you remember the conversation you had with Parker that turned into that song.

MS. NEWCOMER: Well, it was actually a series of conversations. We were talking about the thing that shines below the surface of everything. The curious promise of limited time.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. That’s a wonderful line.

MS. NEWCOMER: Thank you. An idea that we’re here, we’re here right now in this moment, and when you know that time is limited, it makes everything a little more poignant. A little more powerful.

MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if — the word “light” is a word you use a lot. I wonder if you know that.

MS. NEWCOMER: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, it’s not that…

MS. NEWCOMER: I do.

MS. TIPPETT: …a lot of people use it. It’s a very important metaphor and image and it’s not that you’re the only one who uses it. But it really did jump out at me. The geography of light is…

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …very evocative. You had an album which you named…

MS. NEWCOMER: The Geography of Light.

MS. TIPPETT:Geography of Light. Well, I’m just wondering if you can put words around what it is about light that keeps calling you?

MS. NEWCOMER: Well, I’ve always liked in the Quaker tradition that sometimes God is referred to, or whatever the larger is, is referred to as the light, And we all experience that — that which happens when you see a sunset and your heart becomes too big for your chest? Or the first time you see your baby in your arms and time expands out in all directions from that child? When you see that first red leaf of autumn and it’s bittersweet. And it’s so incredibly exciting at the same time. What is that? So I see it, and I sense it every day. I see it in people all the time. And maybe that’s why I keep writing about it. Because I’m not sure exactly what it is.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, well …

MS. NEWCOMER: I just know it’s there.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and I think the autumn analogy also gets at something I sense behind it is also a presence to darkness, right? Being attentive to light because you’re attentive to the shadows.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah, it’s all shadow and light. There’s a lot of sorrows in this world. And, maybe that’s part of how I negotiate that. I think when you’re sensitive to the sorrows of this world and you’ve experienced shadows in your own life that you can do different things with it. You can despair. You can shut down. Or you can lean into the light. Without denying or placing in a compartment or making small this idea of shadow, it’s just there. It’s life. It’s all of it. It’s all of the above.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, that is a very redemptive way of thinking about. The song that occurs to me is “Bare to the Bone.” And to me that’s about, yes, I mean, it’s struggling with something like depression, which I have gone through, or these really bad things that happen to us, but also I think that song is about how kind of day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, struggle is also kind of woven into the things that are right.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Right? It just is. And, there’s something about leaning into that, too, which is hard.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah, there’s some songs that land — there are songs that you hone on for a long time. “Betty’s Diner” was a project. It was notes taken on the road. It was a short story.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MS. NEWCOMER: Now it’s a play, actually. I’ve written a play…

MS. TIPPETT: It is?

MS. NEWCOMER: …with Richard Thomas and it’ll be produced at Purdue University in 2015. But, yeah, some things you hone on for a long time.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. NEWCOMER: And then once in every great while, a song comes all — it’s already done. It’s completed. You just kind of get out of the way. And “Bare to the Bone” was like that. I sat down in my space where I like to write, and it came out in half an hour.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Would you sing that one?

MS. NEWCOMER: Sure. I wish there were more of those.

[laughter]

But it’s only once in a great while, but that idea of struggle being part of it. It’s a simple song, really.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah…

MS. NEWCOMER: It’s interesting.

MS. TIPPETT: …kind of.

MS. NEWCOMER: Musically. I think something also good happened to my music when I stopped being afraid to do something — to present it simply, because I was afraid that people would think I couldn’t do it in a complex way. There’s a simplicity that happens when you just don’t know what else to do. And it can be a little raw. And it can be real honest. And then there’s the simplicity that happens because it’s the best way to say it. So…

[singing] Here I am without a message
Here I stand with empty hands
Just a spirit tired of wandering
Like a stranger in this land
Walking wide eyed through this world
Is the only way I’ve known
Wrapped in hope and good intentions
Bare to the bone

There is nothing I won’t show you
Nothing I can hide
I’ve risked it all and dreamt it all
And seldom questioned why
You took me in when I was hungry
When my spirit ached and groaned
Laid wide open and defenseless
And bare to the bone

So, when I rise, I rise in glory
If I do, I do by grace
Time will wash away these footprints
And we’ll leave without a trace
Between here and now and forever
Is such precious little time
What we do in love and kindness
Is all we ever leave behind.

When the light is slowly fading
And my eyes is softly waning
And the evening sun is setting…

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Carrie Newcomer through our website, onbeing.org.

[music: “Bare to the Bone” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing]…and the world is barely breathing
Then your voice can call me
And your hands can lead me home
Like a newborn awed and naked
And bare to the bone.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Bare to the Bone” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] So, when I rise, I rise in glory
If I do, I do by grace
Time will wash away these footprints
And we’ll leave without a trace
Between here and now and forever
Is such precious little time
What we do in love and kindness
Is what we really leave behind

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, a live musical conversation at On Being on Loring Park, with folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

[music: “Bare to the Bone” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] Here I am without a message
Here I stand with empty hands
Just a spirit tired of wandering
Like a stranger in this land
Walking wide eyed through this world
Is the only way I’ve known
Wrapped in hope and good intentions
Bare to the bone
Wrapped in hope and good intentions
Bare to the bone

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: So, some journalist from Boston [laughs] called you a prairie mystic.

[laughter]

I’ve been around a lot of people lately who have been using the word “prophet,” and I love the — not just the language of a mystic, but the idea. But you use the word “mystic” when you write about people. You know, somebody’s who’s a carpenter, a mystic, and a poet. And I wonder, if you’d say a little bit about how you think about mystics among us, or who the mystics are among us. What are the qualities of that?

MS. NEWCOMER: The piece, I think, that you were quoting from was about a fellow in my Quaker meeting, who has recently passed away in his ’90s. And he was just one of these incredible people that just could not get the world close enough. He just was this incredible character. And he would talk about the natural world in ways that really honored that shining something that was present in it. And I felt he was a mystic. He would never say that.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, that’s…

MS. NEWCOMER: Of course not.

MS. TIPPETT: …that’s proof…

MS. NEWCOMER: Part of the deal.

MS. TIPPETT: …that it might be true. There’s this — an analogy that somebody offered me, and it was the earliest days of the show, but I’ve never forgotten it. It was a scientist, a geneticist, who’s also an Anglican priest. He said that the spirituality of a scientist is like the spirituality of a mystic, which is to say, defining and asserting truth as best as you can articulate it in this moment, but always living in the expectation — always taking delight in what you do not yet, cannot yet, know, and living in the expectation of better discoveries to come.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah, that idea of living in the expectation, to live in the question.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. NEWCOMER: And, to be comfortable there, to live in the question.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: And in the wonder of it, the wonder of the question.

MS. TIPPETT: I think, though, sometimes, living in the wonder can be a creative tension, but in a tension with the certainties. And I think that was his point, that that is actually a holy tension, a sacred tension.

MS. NEWCOMER: I think it is. Though something happens — I have a song called “I Believe” that came about because I was asked to sing in a church service, and this particular church service at one point, the people stood and they recited a creed together as a community.

MS. TIPPETT: They weren’t Quakers?

MS. NEWCOMER: They weren’t Quakers, because they kind of don’t say anything, so…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

[laughter]

MS. NEWCOMER: But I got to thinking about it, that there is something powerful, not when it’s said without thought, but when you do say something out loud that’s important to you, I love you, and you mean it. Or, if you need me I will be there. When you say it out loud, this I love, something shifts, something changes a little bit. So there is that thing of what is it, I believe? What is it that I think is true, at least now, as close as I can find and articulate?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I think there’s something…

MS. NEWCOMER: And I wonder.

MS. TIPPETT: …deeply human and essential about that.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Even for the most deeply constantly questioning of us.

MS. NEWCOMER: The edges can get soft.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah, there’s no place to put your feet.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s something that you wrote — this is in your book, and I may just read a little bit of this, and maybe ask you to read the rest of it. Or then you read it yourself, but I want to read it just because I love these words. “Three Gratitudes.” Now, and it’s a wonderful poem, but I also just find this idea so useful. I want to start doing this myself. And here’s how it starts: “Every night before I go to sleep I say out loud three things that I am grateful for, all the significant, insignificant, extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life. It’s a small practice and humble, and yet, I find I sleep better holding what lightens and softens my heart.”

MS. NEWCOMER: And it’s true. It was like this saying out loud three things. Sometimes they would be big things, and sometimes they would be little things. And then sometimes I’d get on a roll and I just couldn’t stop.

MS. TIPPETT: And you do it even on the days that were hard?

MS. NEWCOMER: Yes, I would. And that would change something.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s some really interesting science now about — and it’s not that different from this. I mean, it’s just about asking people and the — in a study to, once a week or once a day make a list of things they’re grateful for, very routine.

MS. NEWCOMER: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And it improves their health, and, yeah, they sleep better, they’re more at peace.

MS. NEWCOMER: Kindness is another idea like that. I think we talk about love a lot, and I think love can get really big. Love gets like, you can’t almost get your arms around it, it’s such a big thing, but kindness. Kindness is like the country cousin to love.

[laughter]

It just kind of does dishes, when no one asked it to.

[laughter]

You know what I mean? And I try in some ways that the songs that I write would have a bit of that feeling to them that just, a sense of kindness about them, as to hope, anyways.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. You want to read that poem?

MS. NEWCOMER: Sure.

MS. TIPPETT: The whole thing, the “Three Gratitudes”.

MS. NEWCOMER: “Three Gratitudes”, this is related to a song called “Thank You and Good Night.”

Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
Three things that I’m grateful for,
All the significant, insignificant
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It’s a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.
Sunlight, and blueberries,
Good dogs and wool socks,
A fine rain,
A good friend,
Fresh basil and wild phlox,
My father’s good health,
My daughter’s new job,
The song that always makes me cry,
Always at the same part,
No matter how many times I hear it.
Decent coffee at the airport,

[laughter]

And your quiet breathing,
The stories you told me,
The frost patterns on the windows,
English horns and banjos,
Wood Thrush and June bugs,
The smooth glassy calm of the morning pond,
An old coat,
A new poem,
My library card,

[laughter]

And that my car keeps running
Despite all the miles.

And after three things,
More often than not,
I get on a roll and I just keep on going,
I keep naming and listing,

Until I lie grinning,
Blankets pulled up to my chin,
Awash with wonder
At the sweetness of it all.

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: You wrote — or said, “My best prayers are songs, always have been.”

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And I wondered if you might sing us a song that is a prayer.

MS. NEWCOMER: Well, they’re all kind of.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. NEWCOMER: They’re all kind of like that.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, OK. Well, what feels more like the prayer you would pray today?

MS. NEWCOMER: So this is on the new one. And it’s kind of about hope in a way, and thresholds, and there’s a lot on this new album about thresholds. We’re always coming up to new thresholds.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s such a great word, too. I love that word. Thresholds.

MS. NEWCOMER: I do, too.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: And we keep arriving at them and, at a threshold there’s often a moment where what is old has passed away, but the new hasn’t quite arrived yet. So you stand there at the doorway. And all the more important that we remember to be kind.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: ‘Cause we’re all kind of figuring it out right now.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: But yeah, that idea — and I think you’re — I really sense that everywhere I go, too I think there is this longing out there — that longing. And sometimes, not even sure what exactly the longing’s about just yet.

[singing] Looking out at the night
Beyond the driver’s wheel,
Curving hips made of snow
In the winter fields.
There’s a house set way back
Where the lamplight glows,
Like a star out in the cold,
Filled with people I’ll never know,
Who left a light,
Left a light in the window.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today a musical conversation with folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

[music: “A Light in the Window” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] What would I change if
The choice were mine?
I was doing the best
I knew at the time.
And every door that was opened
And door that closed,
All the things that made me grow,
Sent me off down another road,
Off to look for a light,
For a light in the window.

Now the old has already passed away
But the new is too new
to be born today.
So I’m throwing out seeds
On the winter snow,
As a cold wind begins to blow,
Standing here on a new threshold,
I can see a light,
There’s a light in the window.

And the world is made of stone,
And the world is made of glass.
And the world is made of light,
And it’s moving very fast.

We pass from mystery to mystery
So I won’t lie
I don’t know what happens
When people die.
But I hope that I see you walking slow,
Smiling wide as a sunrise grows,
Drop my map with a thousand folds,
In the distance I see it glow,
There’s a light, there’s a light
There’s a light in the window

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: There’s that light again.

MS. NEWCOMER: There it is again. It does fascinate me.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: So, this one, actually, I listened to this great interview that you did with Vincent Harding.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, yeah, who just died this year.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yeah, and, what a beautiful interview that was.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: I mean, just talking about people singing together.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes.

MS. NEWCOMER: The importance of people singing together.

MS. TIPPETT: How in the ’60s, how the Civil Rights Movement sang their way to freedom.

MS. NEWCOMER: I was very touched by it. And he kind of challenged, though, a little bit at the end. We need those — we need more. We need the new ones that people are writing today. And I thought, yeah, well, I’m a songwriter.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, no, and I want to ask you about that, I talked to the Indigo Girls last summer.

MS. NEWCOMER: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And Amy Ray in particular, she’s very oriented towards social justice. And I asked them, and this was on my list of questions we didn’t get to. She said, this is something I’m thinking about. And I think songwriters are thinking about — where’s the Pete Seeger? And music was so central…

MS. NEWCOMER: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: …to all of that ferment a few decades ago.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yes, and it’s an interesting, it’s really an art form. It’s a challenge to write a song, a song that people can sing immediately the first time they hear it.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, and the other thing that they got people doing, and the spirituals, of course, did this, right?

MS. NEWCOMER: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Which is what…

MS. NEWCOMER: The call and response.

MS. TIPPETT: …the Civil Rights — yeah.

MS. NEWCOMER: Yes.

MS. NEWCOMER: But something happens, the room shifts when people sing together. And they sing out loud things, words and phrases, that touch something deep and human and hopeful. And I wanted to write a song that talked about hope, but not in a greeting card kind of way. There’s the kind of hope that’s like wishful thinking. And then there’s like a hope that’s kind of gritty. It’s like, the kind of hope that gets up every morning and chooses to try to make the world just a little kinder place in your own way. And the next morning gets up, and does it again. And the next morning, gets up, and you have been disappointed. And you do it again. I wanted to write about the kind of hope that’s faithful, that kind that Niebuhr talked about: “anything worth doing will probably not be achieved in one lifetime. So we are saved by hope.” That kind of hope. And that’s a harder kind of hope to live with, because it’s easier to be cynical. I mean, when you’re cynical, you’re never disappointed.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Right. That’s true.

MS. NEWCOMER: It’s like, well, I knew that.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: It’s cowardly in that sense, isn’t it?

MS. NEWCOMER: Well, it’s courageous to hope, because when you do choose to hope, eventually at some point your heart will be broken, and you will be disappointed. And then you get up and you do it again. But I think courage has nothing to do with being fearless. I think courage has everything to do with loving something or someone so much that you will brave it with solid feet or shaky knees because you love it that much. And music has always been like that for me, And, the things we hope for. The things we love. We hope, because we love it that much. It’s worth the risk.We do have an audience here, so, you could sing along.

[laughter]

You’ve been hoping, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Well, we just figure out when to sing along?

MS. NEWCOMER: Well, this is the part.

[singing] If not now, tell me when

Try that?

AUDIENCE: If not now, tell me when

MS. NEWCOMER: It goes like this:

[singing] We may never see this moment

AUDIENCE: We may never see this moment

MS. NEWCOMER: Or place and time again

AUDIENCE: Or place and time again

MS. NEWCOMER: If not now, if not now, tell me when

OK, here’s the whole thing.

[singing] If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when

MS. TIPPETT: Carrie Newcomer’s albums include Betty’s Diner, The Gathering of Spirits, and, more recently, A Permeable Life, which has an accompanying book of poetry and essays.

[music: “If Not Now” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when?

MS. TIPPETT: You can watch her performance of the songs you’ve just heard, and a few more, at onbeing.org. There you’ll also find the lyrics and audio of all the music and conversation in this hour. And, as always you can listen again or share this show again at onbeing.org.

[music: “If Not Now” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] I see sorrow and trouble in this land

Sing that.

I see sorrow and trouble in this land
Although there will be struggle
We’ll make the change we can
If not now, if not now, tell me when?

Here we go

AUDIENCE: If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when?

MS. TIPPETT: iTunes has selected On Being as a “Best of 2015” podcast. You can listen to over a dozen years of big conversation — just subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, visit our website, or download the free On Being mobile and tablet apps for Apple and Android devices. Listening is easy — whether you’re driving, exercising, or unwinding. Get 12 years of goodness and learn more at onbeing.org.

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Tony Birleffi, Marie Sambilay, and Tracy Ayers. Special thanks this week to Maury Jensen for helming the board during my conversation with Carrie Newcomer.

[music: “The Gathering of Spirits” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] Oh, let it go my love, my truest
Let it sail on silver wings
Life’s a twinkling that’s for certain,
But it’s such a fine thing
There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends
And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again.

I can’t explain it,
I couldn’t if I tried
The only things we carried are
The things we hold inside
Like a day in the open
Like a love we won’t forget
Like the laughter that we started
And it hasn’t died down yet

Oh, let it go my love, my truest
Let it sail on silver wings
Life’s a twinkling that’s for certain,
But it’s such a fine thing
There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends
And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again.

Oh yeah, now didn’t we
Don’t we make it shine
Aren’t we standing in the center of
Something rare and fine
Some glow like embers
Like the light through colored glass
Some give it all in one great flame
Throwing kisses as they pass
There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends

MS. TIPPETT: Our major funding partners are:

The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at Fordfoundation.org.

The Fetzer Institute, fostering awareness of the power of love and forgiveness to transform our world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, contributing to organizations that weave reverence, reciprocity, and resilience into the fabric of modern life.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

And, the Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

[music: “The Gathering of Spirits” by Carrie Newcomer]

MS. NEWCOMER: [singing] And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again.

[applause]

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Carrie Newcomer
Publisher: Available Light Publishing
Binding: Paperback, (102)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Carrie Newcomer
Label: Philo
Artist: Carrie Newcomer
Label: AVAILABLE LIGHT REC.
Artist: Carrie Newcomer
Label: Rounder / Umgd
Artist: Carrie Newcomer
Label: Rounder

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