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James R. Newell
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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, Howlin' 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 (Sufi devotional music). 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 Hafiz. 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. 


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