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'Squeezed' Explores Why America Is Getting Too Expensive For The Middle Class

Author Alissa Quart writes that the costs of housing, child care, health care and college are outpacing salaries and threatening the livelihoods of middle class Americans.


Other segments from the episode on June 26, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 26, 2018: Interview with Alissa Quart; Interview with Frank Newsome; Review of TV series 'A Very English Scandal.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're middle class and feel like you're having a hard time staying middle class, you are not alone. In fact, you're the kind of person my guest, Alissa Quart, writes about in her new book "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." She reports on how the costs of housing, child care, health care and more have far outpaced salaries and how that's changing the lives of middle-class Americans, as well as life in American cities. Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Alissa Quart, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the mantra of your book is it's not your fault. And that's something you had to convince yourself of. Tell us what you felt guilty about that exemplifies what you think others feel guilty about too in terms of being able to maintain themselves in the middle class and provide for their child or children.

ALISSA QUART: So when I got pregnant with my daughter, both my husband and I were freelancers, and we didn't have that much security. We had savings. We were better off than many people, but we didn't have, you know, pensions and all the things that people used to have. And very quickly, we were going through our savings, and I did feel a lot of shame about that. I said, you know, what could I have done differently? Both of us being journalists was probably not the best choice, I thought. So that started to feel to me like a kind of stigma that I have had to work to get over. And part of the book was me communicating with a lot of other people who also felt that shame and stigma.

GROSS: You write middle class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago. And in some cases, the cost of daily life has doubled. What do you define as middle class for that statistic?

QUART: Yeah. So I'm defining it according to a 2016 Pew survey with a yearly - those with a yearly household income for a family of three ranging from $42,000 to $125,000. And in 2014, that was 51 percent of U.S. households. I mean, I go up the scale in one of the chapters, and I go down the scale in two chapters. So I'm trying to show mostly people who are making that much but then also how even when you make more than that in, you know, Palo Alto and San Francisco and New York, it doesn't feel like you're upper-middle class. It feels like you're middle class. And if you make less than that and you're trying to get into the middle class, you can't accomplish that either.

GROSS: So what do you think are the main expenses that have gone up for American families?

QUART: Expenses that have gone up starts with housing and the cost of real estate, of homeownership. And then, it continues on with health care, which is, as everybody knows, astronomical and then schooling. A public university cost double what it did in 1996. And that's not a fancy private school. So I think that's kind of very telling, and a lot of the people I spoke to were sort of weighted down by educational debt. If we think about what it means to be a professional, it often means having, you know, at least college and then potentially graduate school. So a lot of what these people were struggling with was, like, $140,000 in law school bills and that kind of thing.

GROSS: You didn't have a child until you were 38. How much did the cost of having a child figure into waiting that long?

QUART: You know, I'll be honest. I think for me some of it was that, but most of it was other sorts of things that I actually talk about in the book as well. And we also know that, you know, mothers are estimated to make - there was a survey of employers who were thinking of hiring mothers versus childless women, and they wanted to offer the mothers $11,000 less per year. And you're supposed to make 7 percent less per child. So, I mean, it wasn't even necessarily the money that we had but what I knew it could potentially do to my earning power.

GROSS: So those surveys that show that women with children make less money, what's the explanation for that?

QUART: I think it's, you know, employers' prejudice that, you know, there's a lot of sense that, oh, they're going to be less productive. We have such limited maternity leave. Paid family leave is - something like 13 to 14 percent of Americans have paid family leave in their jobs, so that's very small. And, you know, I think these employers feel like, oh, once I hire somebody who has a kid, this is going to be a cascade of latenesses and absences - things that are really often untrue and just bias. I mean, in fact, there was a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis survey that found moms were more productive in their jobs than women without children. And they got those numbers by surveying 10,000 academics.

GROSS: Were you still a freelance journalist when you had your child?

QUART: Yeah, I was a freelance journalist. And, you know, part of the thing in our industry in journalism is that since 2004, newspapers have lost 50 percent of their jobs. So, you know, it was a real concern. Everyone I knew was suddenly earning after, say, 2006 or '07 less per word than they did in the '90s and - you know, I mean, except for the 1 percent, top 1 percent of journalists, that was kind of the case. And I knew that on top of having - being a contingent worker - right? - which makes us more vulnerable being freelance, my own industry was really under siege.

GROSS: So let's talk about child care, and child care is so expensive. I'm talking about, you know, day care. And working women - I think the number of working women that we have in our society today, it's a relatively new phenomenon. And I don't think our society has adjusted to it yet in terms of having an infrastructure that makes it possible for two parents to work and be able to afford child care. Child care is just so expensive. What are some of the figures for the cost of day care that you've come up with, both as a parent and as a researcher for this book?

QUART: Yeah. So right now, two-thirds of women with kids under 6 are working. So that is a huge number. And those are kids who are often too young to be in kindergarten or even preschool. So that means that they're going to be needing day care, which at this point can cost - a lot of the people I spoke to were paying 20 to 30 percent of their income on their children's day care. Now, like, this is - varies from state to state. So the Economic Policy Institute said the annual average cost of infant care in New York state is $14,000. So a New York family with one child pays 21 percent of their income on child care on average, and for two kids, that rises to 38.7 percent.

GROSS: So, you know, you write in your book that teachers, both, like, teachers in public schools and college teachers, especially adjunct professors, are having a hard time making ends meet. So let's start with schoolteachers. Give us an example of one of the people who you interviewed who's struggling who's a schoolteacher.

QUART: So yeah - so I spoke to Matt Barry, who lived in San Jose, Calif., and he was a schoolteacher. He and his wife both teach. They earned $69,000, a combined salary, which, if we do the math, is - should have supplied them with a comfortable family life. But on the side, Matt was driving Uber, and he was - had to do so because of the cost of living in places like San Jose. I don't know if you saw, but there was just numbers released about how much it costs to live there, and it's one of the most expensive places in America right now. A starter home costs $680,000. And he wasn't the only one. I also spoke to people in North Dakota where there had been an oil boom. So suddenly, the cost of living was much higher, the rent - renting apartments and so forth. And they had made $32,000 starting salaries. And I spoke to somebody who GoFunded her teacher training program. Her name was Rebecca Maloney. And I talked to other teachers who, when we got off the phone, they went off and painted houses after the school bell. So that - you know, a lot of people are doing additional jobs.

GROSS: That's kind of bad for society because, from having taught very briefly myself, I know that evenings are usually spent grading papers, planning lessons, maybe making phone calls to parents. So if you don't have evenings to do that kind of work, when are you going to do it?

QUART: No, exactly. And this was - also there was the paradox that some of these people were driving the parents of their students. So it just created...

GROSS: Oh, like while working with Uber or Lyft.

QUART: Yeah, and driving the parents of their students. So it just kind of created this bizarre sort of secondary service economy.

GROSS: You write that teachers as Uber drivers was a thing for a while.

QUART: Yeah. And they, Uber, had a campaign. I think it was Uber teachers driving our future, or something like that. And that was in 2014 or '15. And they also had one for nurses. And so, I mean, I wrote about this. I feel like for a company like Uber, and generally gig economy companies in general, the middle class is a really valuable signifier, right? It's a symbolic category. They're like, OK, it's going to make us look better to have middle-class people driving for us. But the teachers themselves are being underpaid and neglected and not having adequate housing. I personally think that we should try to provide teacher-specific housing in these really affluent communities because that would really help offset the costs.

GROSS: You also write about adjunct professors. Would you explain what an adjunct is?

QUART: An adjunct professor is somebody who works basically as a freelance professor. They work contingently. They don't have tenure. They teach individual classes, sometimes for many different universities or colleges.

GROSS: And you write that adjuncts make up 40 percent of the teachers at American colleges and universities. I didn't realize the statistic was that high. What does it mean financially for adjuncts who get paid by the class as opposed to a full-time salary?

QUART: Yeah. Well, I spoke to adjuncts who made $1,700 a class or $3,000 a class, and so then they were teaching three or four courses a semester and then they were sometimes barely making $24,000. They were close to the poverty line. And that was typical.

GROSS: So why is it that college costs have gone up so high, yet 40 percent of the teachers at American colleges and universities are adjuncts and aren't getting paid very much?

QUART: Well, yeah. It's because college and university administrative positions have risen. It's kind of the corporatization of the university system. They've grown by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009. And that's 10 times the rate of the growth of tenured faculty positions. So, I mean, I think it's important for people listening to this, like, when you're sending your kid to college or university, I feel like these universities should say how many adjuncts are teaching there and what they're paying them. That should be almost part of the U.S. News & World Report rating system.

GROSS: Yeah. Does the high salaries of top administrators really explain what adjuncts are getting paid? Because to pay a few salaries a lot of money when you have, like, you know, thousands of kids, of students, in your university, it's not hard to make up those salaries. I'm not trying to justify or not justify those salaries one way or another, but I'm not sure that that fully explains the low pay of adjuncts.

QUART: I mean, some of it is that a lot of labor has become contingent in general. It's not unionized. You know, universities can be quasi-businesses, right? Some of them are outright businesses. And so they know that the market will bear them hiring adjuncts rather than tenure-track professors.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alissa Quart, and she's the author of the new book, "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Alissa Quart, author of the new book, "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." She's also the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

So you spoke to people who - because housing prices are so high and because child care prices are so high - you spoke to people who are coming up with alternative living arrangements to deal both with the child care price issue and the housing price issue. Share with us some of those alternative housing plans that you've seen.

QUART: So yeah, so I feel like one of the things that made this project less depressing was that it pointed to solutions. And some of those solutions were really big. They involve us voting differently. They involve trying to create maternity leave across the board and universal pre-K and 3-K for schoolchildren. But they also are these sort of smaller, more bespoke solutions, and those included things like co-parenting - people who are not in a romantic situation living together and sharing cooking duties and, you know, drop-off duties for their kids for economic and also for psychological reasons.

GROSS: And you found alternative living arrangements, too, for people just wanting to share their rent. And we're not talking about people in college, or just out of college or just starting out on their own who want roommates.

QUART: Yeah. These were not kids. These were people in their 30s and 40s who sometimes had done this multiple times. They live with a roommate with a kid, and they would cook meals together. And one of the characters told me about, you know, parents were mostly first-generation immigrants, and they would buy, you know, healthy food from their home countries and they would cook it for all the kids, and then the kids would all play together. And they shared the same values around parenting. They were somewhat strict. But they were not romantically involved, but they all lived on different floors of a single house.

GROSS: You write that crowdfunding is now an essential part of America's safety net. Would you elaborate on that for us?

QUART: Yeah. So I wrote a piece in The Times about six months ago about something I call the dystopic social net. And what I mean by that is GoFundMe or other kinds of philanthropies that are coming into the fray to support us when we should be supported by the federal government or local government. And this includes fundraising for day care, which I actually interviewed people for "Squeezed" who did this, or for IVF. They do it on these crowdfunding sites. Or fundraising for school lunches, which whole school districts do. And I talked to people in Montana where the school district was now doing this. There's a whole school district area of GoFundMe. I don't know if you know that, but...

GROSS: I did not know that.

QUART: Yeah. For a range of things, from school lunches to notebooks and pencils. It's very distressing.

GROSS: So unemployment numbers are down now. So statistically, things are looking really good. So how does that figure into your larger theme of how difficult it is to stay middle-class?

QUART: Well, I think we're looking - there's a difference between long term and short term, and some of those changes in the numbers are short term, but some of the problems that we have are long term. And as I write about in my book, I mean, we're looking at automation, record amount of automation of formerly middle-class jobs by 2026, if the World Economic Forum is to be believed. And so I think that's one of the threats that is not being accounted for. I also do wonder with these numbers of - employment numbers how many of the people whose job picture looks rosier are working multiple jobs and how much job security those jobs have because many of the people I spoke to, as I said, are contingent or had a lot of job instability. They didn't have pensions, and they didn't have any kind of future career trajectory from the jobs they had.

GROSS: And a lot of people say that many of those new jobs are fairly low-wage.

QUART: Yeah. They're low-wage jobs. And, you know, sometimes they're in sectors that are actually going down, like retail work, which is eventually, again, going to be automated.

GROSS: So you are now the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. What is it? Tell us about it.

QUART: So it was founded originally by Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote "Nickel And Dimed." And I sort of co-founded its current incarnation with her four or five years ago at this point. And we give grants to writers, photographers, documentarians. We publish their work. We develop their work and publish it and co-publish with a range of places from The New York Times to WNYC to Showtime. We had a film on Showtime. And a quarter of our grant recipients are lower-income, and three quarters are sort of middle-income journalists. But it dovetails very much with what this book is about because a lot of the people that I was encountering in the course of my editing were struggling middle-class or fallen middle-class. They had gotten six-figure advances in the '90s. They had worked at newspapers. And now they were driving Uber or, you know, just living - one of them was, you know, practically homeless. And then we would support their work or I would support their work, and they'd be getting, you know, an amount for - per word from us, and that would, you know, boost them and get them back on their feet.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

QUART: Oh, you're welcome.

GROSS: Alissa Quart is the author of the new book "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." She's the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) I've gotten down to my last pair of shoes. Can't even win a nickel bet because them that's got are them that gets. And I ain't got nothing yet. I'm sneaking in and out...

GROSS: After we take a short break, we'll hear from Frank Newsome, who sings hymns a cappella in a style that's one of America's oldest musical traditions. He's a former coal miner who now has black lung disease. His album of hymns has just been widely released. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


CHARLES: (Singing) That old saying, them that's got are them that gets, is something I can't see. If you got to have something before you can get something, how do you get your first is still a mystery to me. I see folk with long cars and fine clothes. That's why they're called the smarter set because they managed to get what only them that's got supposed to get, and I ain't got nothing yet.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest, Frank Newsome, sings in a style that's one of America's oldest musical traditions - lined-out hymn singing. The hymns are sung a cappella with a leader singing out the first line of the song, which is then sung back by the congregation. Lined-out singing has its roots in 17th century England and is still sung in Appalachia and churches of the denomination Old Regular Baptist. Frank Newsome is a minister of one of those churches in Haysi, Va. It's called the Little David Church. If you're familiar with Ralph Stanley's version of the song "O Death" from the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou," you'll hear some similarities in Newsome's singing. In fact, they were friends and neighbors, and Newsome sang at Ralph Stanley's funeral.

Newsome was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship for his singing in 2011. Frank Newsome has a CD called "Gone Away With A Friend." The songs were recorded at his church in 2006, and the CD is now widely released. It's pretty amazing how powerful his voice is considering he was diagnosed with black lung disease in 1972 after working in Virginia's coal mines for 17 years. He was born in 1942 in Pike County, Ky., one of 22 children. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with the hymn "Beulah Land" from Newsome's CD.


FRANK NEWSOME: (Singing) I'm kind of homesick for a country to which I ain't never been before. No sad goodbyes will there by spoken, for time won't matter anymore. I'm looking now across the river.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Frank Newsome, welcome to FRESH AIR.

F. NEWSOME: Glad to be here.

BRIGER: So you recorded the songs for the CD in your own church, the Little David Church. Does it feel different to you to sing these songs in your church or at a festival?

F. NEWSOME: Well, I guess I ain't as scared or nervous in a church as I am anywhere else, you know?

BRIGER: Do you get scared singing out of your church?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah, yeah. I look at myself. I'm going to make a bad mistake.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

F. NEWSOME: And I don't want that.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about your life. You were born in 1942 in Kentucky, and...


BRIGER: You were one of 22 children. Is that right?

F. NEWSOME: Well, I thought it was 22, but it got it down to 20, yeah. I'm one out of 20 children.

BRIGER: And could you tell me about your home and where you lived?

F. NEWSOME: We lived in the head of a holler. My daddy had a big farm - 169 acres. And we was poor people. We had nothing much. We raised what we eat. My mother would can stuff in the summer to pull us through to the winter. My daddy - he worked on the WPA, he liked to call it, 50 cents a day.

BRIGER: So was there a lot of music in your family? Did you play an instrument as a kid?

F. NEWSOME: Oh, yeah, I learned to play a guitar when I was little. Yeah, I had three other brothers that could play. And one of them played at a radio station in Ohio - Wellston, Ohio. He had a show that he played for a long time on.

BRIGER: And you would play with him on that radio station in Ohio.


BRIGER: You moved up there when you were a little older to work in a saw mill. Is that correct?

F. NEWSOME: Right.

BRIGER: What kind of music would you play?

F. NEWSOME: Bluegrass. He was left-handed guitar player, and I was right-handed.

BRIGER: And I heard you built your first guitar when you were a kid. Is that correct?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah - got them nails in that board, and I got old steel wire from them there's cable wire, and I cut them off. I wrapped them around the nails and bent the nails over. More you bent the nails, tighter they would get. And I called it a guitar anyhow.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

F. NEWSOME: It made a sound (laughter).

BRIGER: Could you play it? You took a board, and you stuck nails in it and put...


BRIGER: ...Steel wire?

F. NEWSOME: I put it on my lap and everything, and I made a noise out of it.


BRIGER: So when you were singing back on the radio with your brother, is that a similar way to the way you sing now?

F. NEWSOME: Pretty well, yeah. Oh, I sing bluegrass at the house for my grand- young 'uns.

BRIGER: Oh, you still play guitar?

F. NEWSOME: Oh, yeah. I know what to do, but I'm a little slow hitting the chords.

BRIGER: Well, I hope they forgive you for that.


BRIGER: How many grandchildren do you have?

F. NEWSOME: I've got five grandchildren - four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

GERALDINE NEWSOME: You have five grandchildren.

F. NEWSOME: Five - OK. I was right - five grandchildren...

BRIGER: Who's that talking...

F. NEWSOME: ...And two...

BRIGER: ...In the background?

F. NEWSOME: That's my wife.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

F. NEWSOME: She's helping me.

BRIGER: Good thing she's there to correct you (laughter).

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. Oh, she's been my helpmate for a long time.

BRIGER: Well, that's good to hear.


BRIGER: Now, Ralph Stanley used to sometimes attend your church, and he would have you sing at his festivals.


BRIGER: So then when would you sing there?

F. NEWSOME: Every time he called me up on the stand, he'd want me to sing "Going Away With A Friend." And that's the one that he said when I preached his funeral...

BRIGER: You sang that as...

F. NEWSOME: ...That he wanted me to sing.

BRIGER: You sang that as his funeral?


BRIGER: Were you close friends with him?

F. NEWSOME: Lord, yeah - for over 40 years we was.

BRIGER: And he would come to church, attend your church often?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. When he was able and wasn't tied up, he was there about every meeting time.

BRIGER: Well, why don't we hear the song, Frank, that you sang at Ralph Stanley's funeral? This is "Gone Away With A Friend," which is also on your CD.


F. NEWSOME: (Singing) Gone away with a friend, someone closer than a brother, with somebody who loves you more than children, dad or mother. And he holds your very soul in the palm of his hand. Let it read on my tombstone, gone away with a friend. He's...

BRIGER: So you left Ohio, and you moved to Virginia, where your brothers got you a job working in a coal mine.

F. NEWSOME: Right.

BRIGER: It sounds like many people in your family worked in coal mines. And I read also that all the male members of your church, Little David Church, at some point worked in a coal mine. Did it feel like it was just inevitable that someday you would work in the mines as well?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. When my brother was working in a coal mine, my daddy working in a coal mine, I said to myself, when I grow up, I'll be working in the old coal mines. I worked for 20 - almost 20 years till I got in the shape I'm in now, and I can't hardly go now. But I'm glad. That's the only way you had to make a living back in the late '50s and the early '60s here in Virginia.

BRIGER: What was the work that you would do in the mines?

F. NEWSOME: I'd load cars - 2-ton cars with a No. 4 shovel. You got a dollar a car for the company that you worked for.

BRIGER: And did you enjoy this work?

F. NEWSOME: Lord, yeah. I enjoyed that work.

BRIGER: You worked for the mines for 17 years, but then you were diagnosed with black lung disease. And as the audience...


BRIGER: ...Can hear, it's hard for you to breathe sometimes. What's your health like now?

F. NEWSOME: It's a little bit better than what I have been. They got me on different medicine, and something is kindly (ph) helping me a little bit better than what it was.

BRIGER: Well, that's good. What do they have you on, a steroid or something?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. They got me on steroids. I take them every other day, and they're the breathing medicine.

BRIGER: Do you have an asthma medication or something, like...


BRIGER: ...An inhaler?

F. NEWSOME: Right. I've got that.

BRIGER: Now, do you have to use an oxygen tank, as well?

F. NEWSOME: Oh, yeah. I use oxygen, but I ain't got it with me right now.

BRIGER: Well, I hope you don't need it while you're talking to us.

F. NEWSOME: I do, too.


F. NEWSOME: Oh, wee (ph).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Frank Newsome. His album of hymns is called "Gone Away With A Friend." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Frank Newsome, who has an album of hymns that's just been widely released called "Gone Away With A Friend." Newsome was diagnosed with black lung disease in 1972 after working in the Virginia coal mines for 17 years.

BRIGER: It's amazing to me to think that you have black lung disease, which you describe as suffocating, but you're still able to sing these hymns with such power.

F. NEWSOME: I'm glad you said that. Everybody tells me that. You know, for some reason, I can't explain it. I don't have the breath, hardly. When I walk up on the stand, I have to stand there a minute or two before I can talk. And, you know, when I go to singing, seemed like my voice as loud as it ever was. And they say, well, you done good to be smothering like you did. I said, well, it come from a higher power.

BRIGER: Now, you've said that coal mining was a good job for you. You liked the work, and it made it possible for you to make a living and provide for your family. But it also sounds like it did a lot of harm to your body. Putting those facts on either side of a scale, how does it balance out for you?

F. NEWSOME: When I was working in the mines, they had the big fans blowing good air in there. You had to stay busy sometimes, or you'd get a little cold. And I stayed busy loading coal and trying to get my shift in so I could come outside and see the rest of them. And in a way, it was fun to me. I didn't know I'd get in this shape. Back then, I didn't pay no attention, but I see what it's done to me now. But if I had it to do over and I lived here, I'd do the same thing.

BRIGER: So you don't regret it.

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. I don't regret it.

BRIGER: Now, you said you came to be saved while you were working in the coal mines. Can you talk about that?

F. NEWSOME: Yes. I got in trouble on account of my sins, and when I quit loading coal in the car, they put me on the motor to hook to the cars, and take them to the outside, and dump them, and bring them back to where they could load again and get another load. Well, every break that I got, I was in trouble on account of my sins, the wrong that I had done between me and the Lord. I didn't want to die in that shape because I know where I'd go - my soul. I began to get off in the motor and go down in a break. A break is another place where they done mined out. And I tried to pray to the good Lord to have mercy upon me. Lord, save my soul. I don't want to die like this. I kept on, kept on till I give it all into the hands of the good Lord. Lord, here I am. Save my soul or I'm gone. And that's when I felt that he come into my life - was that day.

BRIGER: And then from then on, you started preaching at the Little David Church. Is that...

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. Later on, a year or two, I started preaching and telling the people the life that I used to live. I don't like it no more. Give me the life I've got now.

BRIGER: So after you were saved and you started preaching - and you had said that you were asking forgiveness for some of the sins that you felt that you had committed in life - did you - when you were preaching, did you talk about those sins that you had committed?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah. I told them that I'd used God's name in vain a few times. I'd done other things that I wish I hadn't done. But I guess that's the nature of everybody growing up. In my lifetime, I'm just going to tell the truth. I have stole cigarettes out of people's car to smoke. I didn't have the money to buy them, and I stole a pack time or two, all that. And all them things was wrong, wasn't right, and I didn't feel safe the shape I was in.

BRIGER: So a lot of the songs that you sing, a lot of the hymns, are about the troubles of life and the hardship that people deal with when they're alive. And it's about looking forward to getting to heaven and seeing the loved ones that have gone on ahead. And, you know, you started singing these songs when you were very young. You're now in your mid-70s and you have health issues. Do the words of these songs have a different meaning for you now?

F. NEWSOME: Yes. They're more sweeter to me, and I understand it better. Now, like "Amazing Grace," "There Is No Other Fountain," "Gone Away With A Friend," "Treasures That Money Can't Buy," and "Beulah Land" means more to me than what they used to when I was real young. It's got the old-time sound that there ain't another sound under heaven like it. It's a sound that you can't, when the Lord bless you, that you can't put music with it.

BRIGER: I have to say that some of your singing gives me the shivers in a good way.

F. NEWSOME: (Laughter).

BRIGER: People say that to you?

F. NEWSOME: Yeah, Lord, yeah. Oh, they'd come up to me, and they'd say, oh, you made the hairs stand up on my head and my arms. But I say, well, good. That's what it's all about.

BRIGER: Well, I'd like to end with one more song from your album. It's called "Long Black Train," and, you know, some of the songs that you sing are hundreds of years old, but this is a new song. It's written by singer-songwriter Josh Turner. Why don't we hear it? Frank Newsome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

F. NEWSOME: Oh, you're welcome.


F. NEWSOME: (Singing) Burning your ticket for that long black train. 'Cause there's victory in the Lord, I say, victory in the Lord. Cling to the father and his holy name. And don't go riding on that long black train. There's an engineer...

GROSS: Frank Newsome spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Newsome's album of hymns is called "Gone Away With A Friend." After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new BBC miniseries starring Hugh Grant. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, Amazon begins streaming a new British miniseries called "A Very English Scandal." It stars Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe, a leading Liberal Party politician whose career is threatened by his affair with a young man played by Ben Whishaw. It's a true story. And our critic at large, John Powers, says that it's irresistibly smart and entertaining.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We hear a lot of talk about the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, mainly in foreign affairs, yet nowhere is the relationship more special than in television. I sometimes think PBS would have to shut down if it couldn't import shows like "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock." Americans are especially fond of shows that reflect Britain's obsession with its national history where our shows about the past too often sink into toothless earnestness. Something like "The Crown" crackles with a sense of playfulness, of fun.

There's fun galore in "A Very English Scandal," a three-part BBC miniseries streaming on Amazon. Based on the book by John Preston and directed by the canny old vet Stephen Frears, the show tells the story of the Thorpe affair, a 1970s tabloid fiesta that brought together politics, illicit sex and a criminal trial that left England gobsmacked with its revelation of details too risque for me to repeat here.

The year is 1965, and Jeremy Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant dipped in 5 o'clock shadow, is an MP who dreams of leading the Liberal Party and becoming prime minister. Rakishly decked out in Edwardian suits and a tiny hat, the vain Thorpe boasts slippery charm and the impeccable connections of an Old Etonian. Yet, he also cultivates a streak of louche recklessness - especially in his private life, where he's sexually drawn to what his MP pal Peter Bessell, played by Alex Jennings, terms the spear's side. That is, he sleeps with men - risky business at a time when homosexuality is still illegal and can get you imprisoned.

But when he meets a winsomely attractive stable boy Norman, played by Ben Whishaw, he lures him into bed - at Mama Thorpe's house no less - and begins a love affair with the young man he calls Bunny. Alas, Norman is one of those hapless sorts who, with good intentions, winds up causing headaches for everyone, including himself. When they break up, Norman spends years going from mess to mess. He starts telling people about the affair - threatening both Thorpe's career and the marriage he entered into to advance that career. Here, Peter Bessell asks Thorpe how they should handle Norman.


ALEX JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) Then what do we do?

HUGH GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) We get rid of him.

JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) How?

GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) We could scare him. My friend David should know some men.

JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) What? To rough him up, do you mean? I'm not sure that would work.

GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) Norman? He'd be terrified, which is pathetic.

JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) I'm not sure. It's an easy mistake to make. He's effeminate. Therefore, we think he's weak. But that man sits in pubs and clubs and houses and hotels telling all the world about his homosexuality - out loud, all day long. It doesn't bother him who's listening - priests or housewives or landlords or anyone. He tells the truth and doesn't care. No one else does that, Jeremy - no one, certainly not us. In this whole land, there is Norman and Norman alone. To be blunt, he amazes me. I think he's one of the strongest men in the world.

GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) Well, in that case, there's only one thing we can do - kill him.

JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) Oh, if only we could.

GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) No, I mean it.

POWERS: Thorpe's words unleash a dark comedy of ineptitude, betrayal, chicanery, ruination, unexpected death and misbegotten justice. Much of what happens is quite funny. Yet, just when the action risks plunging into farce during part two, Frears definitely begins reining things in. By the end, the whole show is tinged with a sense of sadness - even tragedy. This is, in no small part, due to its terrific lead actors. Jennings, who's best known as the Duke of Windsor on "The Crown," gives us a Bessell who's a mixture of archness, anxiety and tarnished decency. Whishaw is even better, capturing Norman in his many quicksilver manifestations - innocence, impetuousness, desperation and truth-telling righteousness.

As for Grant, few actors have ever seemed happier to shake off the persona that made them famous. Having escaped the rom-com prison on "Notting Hill," he's begun to soar as the unexpectedly tender husband of Meryl Streep's "Florence Foster Jenkins" and the hammy villain in "Paddington 2" - whose teddy bear hero, incidentally, is voiced by Whishaw. Here, Grant brilliantly gives us the inner Thorpe in his kaleidoscopic emptiness - from campy bonhomie to soiled ruthlessness to - surprise - his own occasional feelings of love.

Without belaboring the point, Frears and company make us see how the Thorpe affair wouldn't have happened had homosexuality been treated as a normal part of life instead of as a crime - a reality that drives Thorpe to act on sociopathic tendencies he already possessed. Yet, the show also reminds us that Norman is doubly victimized because of his place in the British class structure. Although Thorpe is clearly a lying scoundrel, the establishment closes ranks around him because he's one of the right sort. Norman is not. He's an honest nobody. And the powerful treat him as little more than roadkill to be mocked and ignored.

Still, history always gets the last word. And by the end of "A Very English Scandal," you may well think it's the impetuous Norman, not the acclaimed Thorpe, who's the more honorable man. Indeed, their destiny seemed to bear out the truth of the lines that Oscar Wilde - who himself fell afoul of Britain's homophobic laws - wrote while in prison. To speak the truth is a painful thing, Wilde said. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and "A Very English Scandal," starring Hugh Grant, begins streaming on Amazon this Friday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, W. Kamau Bell returns. He has a new Netflix standup comedy special called "Private School Negro." His CNN series "United Shades Of America" is in its third season. And he has a new web miniseries investigating his ancestry and turning up some big surprises, including one about his white great-great-grandfather. I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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