SUNDAY JANUARY 21, 2018; 7:00 pm


By Ross Altman, PhD

Carrie NewcomerForget about Mike Pence, Mr. President; send Carrie Newcomer to Israel; the Indiana folk singer is so positive, optimistic, and filled with a belief in the shared humanity of man she will have Netanyahu and Abbas eating out of the palm of her hand before the first hummus is passed around—and come back with a two-state solution that will reconcile a centuries’ long conflict before your next tweet. You can’t help but fall in love with her—just like the Pepperdine University multiracial audience of beautiful students who greeted her with open arms last night. I was there at Smothers Theatre; I saw it with my own eyes—and have come back—this hermit from the hillside—with nothing but good news. Carrie is a force for good in this pessimistic, nihilistic God-forsaken world.

And then—don’t waste a minute, Mr. President; send Newcomer over to Congress where she will take that other centuries-old intractable conflict—between Republicans and Democrats—and work out a two-party solution that will get the government open again and give you some good news before you make your first State of the Union speech January 30; G-d knows you don’t want to give it while the government of the United States of America is shut down. She’ll have McConnell and Schumer eating out of the palm of her hand and signing a deal. And then you can send me a thank you note—your two most important problems solved.

Carrie started her show right where the Bible does: “Let there be light!” Her first song is Leaning Toward the Light, and it summarizes her world view as succinctly as any. She is a Quaker—and conflict resolution is her theme; which is why she belongs in conflict zones where no one else can see the next step forward.

After Tommy Emmanuel—the Wonder from Down Under—who played here Thursday night—and his prodigious demonstration of the fine art of finger-style guitar it is so refreshing to hear an artist who is not ashamed of alternately strumming her beautiful instruments—even on the same song—with her own complex finger-style arrangements—far and away the most delicate and sumptuous finger-picking I have had the good fortune to hear this side of Emmanuel. And on top of that she adds a most unusual twist: on her Taylor cutaway she keeps not one, not two, but three capos at all times—which she alternates and moves around depending on the song and its position on the fret board. She is thrilling to watch as well as listen to—a master class in finger-style accompaniment with a difference.

But she never puts the guitar in front of the song—which brings her songs to light in a way that gives them a continuing voice in the overall show. Her second moving and inspiring song is I Believe, which starts out with this most welcome observation: “There’s a special place in Heaven for those who teach in public schools,” and from this private university audience elicits a round of applause that visibly moves her on stage. Newcomer also believes in jars of jelly—which she elaborates on later in the show—and good, long-handwritten letters—which in the age of email and texting reminds the audience of why we treasure folk singers in the first place—a link to a bygone age. And finally she believes in watching the sunset. Songs don’t get any simpler, or more wonderful.

Returning to her favored theme of light, she fingerpicks a beautiful hymn to a chance encounter—There’s a Light in the Window. It’s the kind of thing one notices in the woodlands of Indiana, and alas does not make much of an impression in the city of L.A. That’s why her voice and guitar-playing are so special and revealing: she brings a whole culture with her, and ability to observe the smallest details of life that enrich and make whole our experience, such as a pure poem where she sets her guitar aside for a remembrance of her mother who gave her the simple gift of “Singing In the Kitchen.” She not only has the temerity to say that her mother had “the voice of an angel,” but to add the whimsical afterthought that reaches right to my heart: “My dog agreed.”

“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” is Carrie Newcomer’s folk-modulated version of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour~ which she leans into with the next song: The Beautiful Not Yet, to pay tribute to all those things about to be—the seeds still in the ground about to burst open. She has a strong feeling for the world’s possibilities—even those not yet manifest—which is why she would be such a profoundly right choice as a peacemaker in those areas where the principals have all but given up hope for a better world—a better tomorrow. Carrie lives out in the middle of the woods—Robert Frost country—where she is in sync with his great closing lines to Stopping By Woods, “But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.”

Carrie is blessed to have a great accompanist on piano—jazz pianist Gary Walters, who embellishes her folk styles with all kinds of grace notes and perfectly balanced keyboard touches that illuminate the beauty of her melodic gifts. They play together in an on-going musical conversation that draws you into each song for its own unfolding narrative—both musically and lyrically, much like Judy Collins with her musical director keyboardist Russell Walden. One might expect an instrument the size of a grand piano to overwhelm an acoustic guitar, but Gary Walters has such a refined sense of timing and deft touch and Carrie Newcomer is such a gifted guitarist that they are always in pitch and in sync with each other—and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts—Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s abiding definition of poetry.

You Can Do This Hard Thing entitles her next song; a confrontation with the difficult realities we all face at one time or another; “It’s not easy I know, but I believe that it’s so.” Newcomer found inspiration for this song in a childhood memory reinforced by a snatch of conversation she overheard from her neighbor to her daughter complaining that something was too hard to do. Her neighbor did not try to sugarcoat it, or deny that it was hard, but simply persevered in her encouragement to acknowledge that it was so without letting it defeat her. How wonderful to hear in a self-doubting state of mind. That brought back to Carrie Newcomer her own childhood when she was similarly told, “Carrie, you can do this hard thing.” We should all have a friend, or a mother or lover like that. With her indomitable innate optimism, she adds: “The impossible just takes a little more time.”

Carrie draws a wealth of inspiration from her faith, in particular the Quaker philosopher Parker J. Palmer, who wrote Healing the Heart of Democracy. She recounts a telling anecdote from it, a conversation with a friend (in both senses, since he is a Quaker, or Society of Friends), who was asked, “How do I change the world?” He gives the matter some thought and then replies, “I can’t change the world; but I can change what’s around me~ perhaps three feet from what’s right here.” That small sense of hope and determination inspired her song Three Feet From Here. Some lines that stay with me:

I say grace for what I have

People start by being kind

Love will find us in the dark

When I don’t know what is right

I hold it up into the light.

Newcomer believes in holding “in creative tension all that is and all that could be.” There is finally her Quaker adaptation of Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, tell me why/If not now, tell me when.” She sings for a gritty hope, to “keep on struggling even if I may never see the Promised Land.”

After her encomium to the inspiration of a wise Quaker’s counsel, she leaves the stage to let her great accompanist have a solo spotlight—a performance from his own new album The Way Through. It is the unexpected delight of the evening—a transcendentally beautifully composition. A less accomplished musician and songwriter than Newcomer would be understandably reluctant to put this piece right in the middle of her concert—but they are so good together it is yet another example of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.” That’s when I realized how lucky I was to be at their concert; Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre truly hosts the best performances to be seen anywhere. It is a great venue—one of the very best Los Angeles has to offer. No one who is serious about music should miss it. You don’t need to go to the Hollywood Bowl to hear great music, or the Music Center downtown; it’s right here in Malibu, on the PCH. Where else can you hear Tommy Emmanuel and Carrie Newcomer in the same week?

Will You Be My Refuge? she asks in the next song, performed a capella—echoing Bob Dylan (Shelter From the Storm) she asks “Will you be my haven in the storm?” That, frankly, is a little too close for comfort for these old ears of mine.

This Quaker and Midwesterner can stand on her own feet, and her best songs rivet one’s attention on small details, “the small things we do for each other,” not large super-images. She soon returns to form with Love In a Jar. It’s a magical song about something so simple as canning—as in canning salsa, which she does every year with her neighbor and friend Marsha back home in Indiana. They put up hundreds of jars and spread them around amongst their friends. Lucky friends! I know whereof I speak, dear Reader; I am exceedingly lucky to have one such friend—folk singer and Hoyt Axton lifelong love Julierose Palmer, who gives me a care package of farmer’s market delectable fruit and vegetables every month to keep me from falling off the wagon—and many other friends besides me. Thank you, Julierose!—the best reason, as it turns out, for being a folk singer.

“Mom, that is so Beatles,” Newcomer’s own daughter responds to the news that Mom is going to India, courtesy of the American Embassy of India, as a cultural Ambassador of peace and folk music. Wow! Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end. While there Newcomer built a new bridge—between her music and that of classical Indian composer and world master of the Indian Sarod, Amjad Ali Khan. In October of 201l she released an interfaith collaborative benefit album, Everything Is Everywhere. The following year, in June of 2012, she traveled to Kenya, Africa, “performing in schools, hospitals, spiritual communities and AIDS hospices.”

And the following year, in 2013, Newcomer visited organizations devoted to nonviolent conflict resolution through the arts in the Middle East. Are you listening, Mr. President? The only reservation I have in making this recommendation is that—unlike your current VP—Carrie Newcomer would not write a blank check for all of your belligerent and intolerant social policies—especially DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or “The Dreamers Act”—another part of Obama’s legacy you have put on the chopping block. Indeed, this “prairie mystic,” as the Boston Globe called her, makes her pro-immigrant position clear in the song she returns with as an encore—to an auditorium-wide standing ovation; no accompaniment necessary: Room at the Table for Everyone:

This is how it all begins

Too long we have wandered

Let us bring room for us all

Pull up a chair

No matter who you are

No matter where you’re from

Our hearts can’t be hardened

For those living at the margins

There is room at the table for everyone.

And all the students, Mr. President, in this devout Christian university, are enthusiastically singing along. Bravo, Carrie Newcomer~ and pianist Gary Walters~ thank you for an inspiring concert and your uplifting presence. So far from the corridors of power, keep on speaking and singing truth to it.

With many thanks to Tyler Flynn and Tyler Gabbard of Pepperdine for the press passes!

Thursday evening February 22 at 7:00pm Ross Altman performs a Sing-Along Civil Rights Concert at the Silver Lake Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library for Black History Month 2018; 2411 Glendale Blvd, L.A. 90039; 323-913-7451 ; don’t miss it!

Saturday afternoon February 24 at 2:00pm Ross Altman joins author, filmmaker and photographer Byron Motley at the Pintoresca Branch of the Pasadena Public Library for “From Monarchs to Barons: The Legacy of the Negro Leagues,” the Baseball Reliquary’s celebration of Jackie Robinson’s legacy and the history of baseball’s Negro Leagues and players who made them successful in the decades before Major League Baseball’s integration—showing how they were not just about baseball but were an integral part of the modern day Civil Rights Movement~ for Black History Month 2018; in conjunction with the Baseball Reliquary’s month-long exhibit; 1355 North Raymond Ave.; refreshments will be served; free and open to the public—don’t miss it! For further info 626-744-7268

Folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.