James R. Newell
|| James R. Newell
is a vocalist, entertainer, and songwriter with interests in jazz, blues,
folk, and world music. Born and raised in rural Massachusetts, James quit high school at age
fifteen and began playing drums for internationally known cabaret singer Helen
Schneider. James later migrated to Boston where he began working with former
Muddy Waters guitarist Luther
"Georgia Boy" "Shaky Snake" Johnson. James soon found himself
touring college campuses in "packaged" blues shows featuring such artists as Muddy Waters,
Wolf, Mose Allison, John Hammond, Jr., Robert "Jr." Lockwood, John
Mayall, and many other blues greats. His affiliation with Johnson
ultimately led to more work as a drummer with
a variety of blues greats including John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Jr.
Wells, Hubert Sumlin, Big Joe Turner, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and others.
"It was incredible," he says, "to come out of this little country
town and suddenly find yourself hanging out with some of the real giants of the
blues. You can't help but have that affect you." One of his early
solo recordings as a singer-songwriter, a set of ten original acoustic blues
songs, was entitled The Blues is My Business.
|James recently earned his Ph.D. in History and
Critical Theories of Religion from Vanderbilt University (2007).
Approaching his topic through the methods of ethnomusicology and
psychology, James' dissertation focused on music in Islam, with a special
emphasis on the South Asian practice of Qawwali
James' intellectual explorations include interests in psychology and the
healing impact of music in cross-cultural settings of religious worship
and social interaction. He also remains actively involved in working with creative
people in contemporary Western culture on issues of personal development
and human potential.
James received his bachelor's
degree in psychology from Tennessee State University in 1999, and his
master's degree in pastoral counseling and theology at the Vanderbilt
University Divinity School in December, 2001. James spent his
graduate years as a Teaching Fellow at Vanderbilt, and as a research
assistant at the Vanderbilt Center for the Study of Religion and
Culture. In addition to working with other creative people in the
areas of self development and personal achievement, James is currently the
director of Tutoring Services at Vanderbilt. He continues his work as a performing
vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter, appearing
locally and internationally.
James' most recent recorded effort is The Songs of
With this CD Newell has broken new artistic ground by setting to music the
poetry of 14th century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz of Shiraz. James has taken the
classic images of Persian ghazal poetry and set them to an eclectic blend
of world, folk and blues melodies. This musical background effectively
makes available the mystical beauty of these classic Persian lyrics to the
modern, English speaking listener. In particular, James' feel for American blues
music evokes the ambiance of the traditional Sufi tavern, adding a sense of
mystery to the traditional Persian themes of lover and beloved, the wine of
Divine intoxication, and the torturous path of love.
[James R. Newell] has taken the
bare bones of Wilberforce Clarke's version of Hafiz and transformed them into
the living body of Country Western music. This alchemy definitely turns lead
into gold. . . . His musical inventiveness is graceful and inspired. He enters
into the seriousness of Sufi spirituality, bringing with him an undeniably
American directness that gives up none of its own individuality. If you know the
Persian originals, you will recognize these, with a sense of aesthetic shock, as
quintessential and beautiful. If you hear them for the first time in English,
you will hear a damn good song. (Carl
W. Ernst, author The Shambhala Guide to Sufism.)
Throughout his career James has performed around the United
States and the world, performing at concerts and retreats in Mariposa,
California, Colorado Springs, Colorado, New York, Boston, Nashville, and the
International Arts Festival in Assisi, Italy.
Most recently, he was artist in residence at the Meherabad Performing
Arts Center in Ahmednagar, India during the summer of 2001 where he put on a
series of multi-cultural concerts that included musicians from around the world.
While there he also wrote and produced a musical drama depicting the life
of Hafiz of Shiraz which featured many of his adaptations of the great poet's works.