By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
What does a folksinger do without folks?
Our last ReadTheSpirit cover story featuring Carrie Newcomer was published on March 9, 2019, one year before the COVID pandemic in the United States led to social-distancing nationwide. This week, I had a chance to ask Carrie about the toll of the pandemic on her career as a performer. For many years, her life has been defined by tireless touring across North America and occasionally around the world.
So, my first question was: “What does a folksinger do without folks?”
“As happened to all of us, the regular patterns of my life completely altered. My last in-person tour happened in early March of 2020,” Carrie said in our interview. “Finally, just two weeks ago, I went out on my first in-person tour since that time. That’s a very long time to be home. Within a month of the COVID lockdown, I was spending more time at home than I had for 25 years! So the patterns of my life and the rituals of my work completely altered at the drop of a hat—like a sudden: Now, it all ends.”
While some of Carrie’s life-long habits ended for a time—new creative realms opened.
“I was very fortunate that I became involved with the start of the concert-streaming company Mandolin,” she said. Her husband Robert Meitus is a musician and a prominent entertainment-industry attorney who, during the pandemic, also was co-founding Mandolin. If you care to learn more, here is Mandolin’s own brief history.
“Because I was a sort-of resident artist as Mandolin was growing so rapidly, I wound up testing a lot of the new things they were adding to the service,” Carrie said. The company’s home base is in Indianapolis, not far from Carrie’s and Robert’s home in Bloomington. “So, I spent a lot of time with Mandolin, especially in the early days.” And, over the past year, Mandolin has turned into a meteoric success story. In June 2021, the annual music-industry awards given by Pollstar magazine honored Mandolin as the best streaming platform, as reported in Variety. Mandolin’s current concert lineup is featured here, and Carrie’s own artist’s page within that larger website lists her upcoming events.
“So, because of my connection with Mandolin, I was able to do some online concerts and workshops and that was very helpful—although it is a very different animal.”
COVID and ‘The Great Unraveling’
“A very different animal.”
The cultural, public-health, political, racial and spiritual upheavals of the pandemic have blown apart countless communities around the world. In Carrie’s new album and accompanying book of poetry—both of them titled simply Until Now—she never uses the word “COVID” or the term “pandemic.” She refers to this time of upheaval in the opening lines of her first new song as “the great unraveling.”
And what’s the good news here? Fans of Carrie’s work over the years will know that she always brings good news with the bad. The good news here is that she turns “the great unraveling” into an anthem calling on everyone to join in an effort to rebuild our world.
The opening lines of that first song are:
Here in the great unraveling,
So much of this is baffling.
When breathing feels like gambling,
Nowhere to go but here.
Things come together then fall apart.
We gather up our broken hearts,
And endings are just a place to start,
And so we start again.
We’re gonna climb this ladder rung by rung.
We’re gonna count our blessings one by one.
It’s gonna take a little grace and luck,
‘Cause baby it’s a long way up,
Baby it’s a long way up.
“You’ve turned this into a kind of anthem,” I told Carrie. “In the chorus, when you call us to ‘climb this ladder rung by rung,’ it’s really stirring! What makes you so hopeful?”
“In a time of great unraveling, there is also a great opportunity,” she said. “As we put the pieces back together again, we can choose how we do that. We can choose how to weave our threads back together again, hopefully with a little greater awareness of where the fabric had always been a little weak.
“I understand that the pandemic is not over. I understand that we are all in a time of great suffering. I lost family members to this. I understand the pain,” she continued. “But at the same time, this is an opportunity. I do a lot of work with Parker Palmer and he talks about the possibilities when our hearts break. He says that, when our hearts break, they can shatter and wind up going in every direction like shrapnel. But there is another possibility. Our hearts can break open and, in the process, can become more open to the world. I hope that this can be a time when our hearts break open so that we are receptive in new ways.”
‘You’re just like Molly Brown’
Carrie’s interplay with Parker Palmer shapes a lot of her work. In the new album, one of Parker’s casual texts to Carrie wound up inspiring an entire song about resiliency. They were sharing updates about Carrie’s work on creating new options for online streaming of high-quality music. She was texting him about the potential of online streaming.
Parker texted back: “You’re just like Molly Brown. You just keep rowing.” Molly Brown was the famous passenger on the Titanic who helped other passengers board lifeboats, eventually took an oar herself and, after she returned home, helped to raise funds for families devastated by the sinking.
“So, that text from Palmer was in my mind when I went for a long walk and I started singing about her—until that song became an homage to women who have rolled up their sleeves and who showed us the power of resilience,” Carrie said.
Between the song’s four stanzas, she breaks into a refrain that sounds like a full-force, revival-tent call to spiritual resilience. Here is the opening stanza and refrain:
I’m gonna row my boat like Molly Brown,
Picking up an oar, when the ship went down.
When she made it home, Molly kissed the ground,
I’m gonna row my boat like Molly Brown.
Pull and rest, pull and rest.
Do your best, not more or less.
Rest and pull, pull and try.
Keep asking why
‘Til we all meet on the other side.
Throughout Carrie’s new album and book of poetry, she celebrates the power of song—calling all of us to put our oars into the choral waters and row together.
Singing for our lives and communities
At ReadTheSpirit, we certainly are a part of that chorus. In fact, our publishing house has a number of books that celebrate the joys of singing. There’s an entire chapter about the importance of singing in Benjamin Pratt’s book, A Guide for Caregivers. Here is how Benjamin describes the power of song in the opening of his chapter:
Music and singing have amazing restorative power in our lives. Like theater and art, music sends us soaring into new realms of the spirit while we are still grounded in our daily lives. When our daily lives are weighed down by onerous, exhausting tasks, music and dance can restore—even heal—something deep in our soul.
Throughout her career, Carrie has preached the same message. In her new book of poetry that accompanies the Until Now album, she writes an entire ode to singing. It begins this way:
Songs were never meant to be left
To “the professionals.”
Never mind the person who long ago shamed you
Or the church choir member who told you to
Just mouth the words.
Don’t worry if your i’s are dotted
And your t’s are crossed,
Or your pitches are perfectly placed.
If you spend today singing,
If you start by
Humming in the shower,
Then whistling while picking out carrots,
Or singing as you wash dishes,
Or walk in the woods,
Or cross at the traffic light,
You might just begin to feel
Your True Heart
And there’s that theme, often shared by Carrie and Parker Palmer, popping up again: When our hearts break, one new possibility is that, by breaking open, we may welcome the world around us in new ways.
“There are so many things happening in our world right now in such a small window of time,” Carrie said. “Beyond the pandemic, we are in a time of political upheaval, climate change and we are in the midst of a great racial reckoning, which is long in coming and has been long needed. That means: There are so many possibilities of what we might do next!
“Yes, there is pain. Yes, there is tragedy. But, if we stand back and think about it, life is like a great big ocean-going ship and it’s hard to shift the direction of that ship unless something big happens—and right now there are a lot of big things happening. This is an opportunity for all of us to shift our ship’s direction. Right now, while the pandemic continues, I hope that we can do the inner work that will inform and transform our outer work in the world. I hope that we can shift as communities and as a country and all around the world. As I say this, I think about lines in one of my new songs, When the Wolf Is at the Door.”
Part of the song goes like this:
When the old world ends,
A new world starts.
What finally comes together
First had to fall apart.
I’ve been seeing things I thought I’d never see,
There once were four, but now there’s three.
Change comes slouching in, unnamed and unforeseen,
With a quiet voice or on soundless wings.
There’s a storm like I’ve never seen before,
Rumbling like a train, coming up through the floor.
We can’t just be healed, we must be transformed.
When the sky goes dark, and the wolf is at the door.
Care to learn more?
VISIT CARRIE’S HOME ONLINE. You’ll find lots more information and inspiring resources at www.CarrieNewcomer.com
ENJOY CARRIE’S PODCASTS WITH PARKER PALMER. They call their ongoing work together on this podcast The Growing Edge. “Parker Palmer and I started doing creative projects together for more than 15 years ago,” Carrie explains. “We’ve done a couple of spoken-word-and-music programs together. We’ve written and produced a song together. And we’ve created this monthly podcast that people can find wherever they like to get their podcasts. Before COVID, we were doing in-person retreats together on the topic: Where is your growing edge? The podcasts explore the inner work and the outer work that can happen when we step up to our growing edges. We’ve had some wonderful guests on our programs and I’m very grateful that we were able to continue doing these podcasts throughout the pandemic. If you enjoy the podcasts, you will find that some of the songs on the new album relate to those conversations.”