JUDITH CASSELBERRY'S ORIGINAL LOVE WAS MUSIC. She has been a guitarist and vocalist her entire adult life, including a 1980 to 1994 stint as part of the duo Casselberry-DuPreé. She now performs with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely. She has shared the stage with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Odetta, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, and Elvis Costello, among others.
Along the way, while still performing, Casselberry earned her bachelor’s degree (in music production and engineering) and then, a few years later, a master’s in ethnomusicology, during which she discovered a passion for teaching. So she went to Yale, earning a doctorate in African-American studies and anthropology in 2008. She is an associate professor of Africana studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, teaching courses on African-American women’s religious lives, music and spirituality in popular culture, music and social movements, and issues in black intellectual thought.
Casselberry’s forthcoming book, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism (Duke University Press), employs feminist labor theories to examine the spiritual, material, social, and organizational work of women in a New York-based Pentecostal denomination, Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith (COOLJC). In the course of her research, Casselberry immersed herself for more than two years in the life of True Deliverance Church in Queens, N.Y. She spoke by phone with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter in late January.
Sojourners: You examine the “religious work” of women—including prayer, teaching, care for the sick and grieving, liturgical music and movement, and guiding converts. Why did you choose this framework?
I’m inspired and troubled by the stories I have heard.
In the blue light of evening all boundaries get blurred.
And I believe in something better, and that love’s the final word,
And that there’s still something whole and sacred in the world.
—“Help in Hard Times,” by Carrie Newcomer
CARRIE NEWCOMER IS a Quaker singer-songwriter whose music is inspired by hope and the great human potential for peaceful coexistence. The Beautiful Not Yet is the title of both her newest album (Available Light Records) and an accompanying book of poems, essays, and lyrics. She is also working on a spoken word and music collaboration with Parker J. Palmer (author of Let Your Life Speak and Healing the Heart of Democracy) called “What We Need Is Here: Hope, Hard Times, and Human Possibility,” which is scheduled to premiere in spring 2017.
Newcomer lives in southern Indiana when she’s not traveling the world singing her folk and gospel-infused tunes and engaging social and environmental justice issues.
She was interviewed for Sojourners by John Malkin, a musician, journalist, and radio host in Santa Cruz, Calif., whose books include Sounds of Freedom: Musicians on Spirituality and Social Change and The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America.
John Malkin: When did you start making music?
Carrie Newcomer: I picked up a guitar when I was in my early teens and learned my first three chords and started writing songs. I’ve always loved the combination of language and music.
In the liner notes of The Beautiful Not Yet, you mention that many of these songs were written on trains and planes. How has travel been a part of your life and music?
I have followed the Irish musician Peter Wilson’s (aka Duke Special) career from the very beginning, giving him one of his first radio sessions as Booley House way back in the day. I have watched the twists and turns of a determined young man seeking a way to fulfil his dreams for his art.
I remember him deciding that the piano was not the way to go and drawing a guitar band around him, renamed Benzine Headset. Then along came Coldplay and Wilson’s instrument was suddenly back in vogue and loads of bands improved because they gave the musically talented member who had been an add on out in the wings a more central position in writing and performance.
Wilson found his original vocation and genius and the piano became the focus. While watching him with the Ulster Orchestra recently, his piano and voice has never sounded more assured, more authoritative.
Oh Pioneer is being promoted as Duke Special’s third “commercial” release. Between it and his second “commercial” release he has produced five projects from theatre songs to a suite of songs on photographers to a short EP on Belfast’s great voice of the fifties Ruby Murray. His Dukeness seems a prolific young man who needs such projects to give his over imaginative mind room to play.
"How was all of this created? If the answer to that question is God created everything, there was a creator, than I say, great! What a great job. And I like the idea. I find it very, I don’t know, I find it comforting in some way. But if the answer to that is there is no God, I don’t feel like, well, what a jerk I’ve been. I feel, oh fine, so there’s another answer. I don’t know the answer. I’m just a speck of dust here for a nanosecond, and I’m very grateful." — Paul Simon in an interview that will air this weekend on the PBS program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.
Watch the interview in its entirety inside ...