Music Interviews
1:22 pm
Fri May 17, 2013

Bobby McFerrin: Spirituals As Sung Prayers

Originally published on Fri May 17, 2013 3:52 pm

Listen to Bobby McFerrin — onstage, warming up with his band — and it's like you're listening to an entire orchestra bubbling up through one man's body. He becomes a flute, a violin, a muted trumpet, a percussion instrument, a bird, you name it.

Spirityouall is an album McFerrin says he's wanted to make for many years, as he performs classic black spirituals with roots in enslaved communities, as well as songs he composed himself. Through the record, he says he hears the influence of his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., a renowned operatic baritone.

McFerrin says he remembers visits to the family's New York apartment from Hall Johnson, the great African-American musician, composer and choir director who devoted himself to preserving and elevating the spiritual as an art form.

"Hall Johnson, his grandmother was a slave," McFerrin tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And his grandmother would sing these pieces to him, so when she was teaching my father how to sing them, he knew exactly what he was talking about. He knew how to stretch a phrase, how to pronounce a word. You know, my father was very exact in his pronunciations. I grew up around two parents who insisted on correct grammar and correct pronunciations of the words that we spoke."

Every Syllable Matters

Robert McFerrin Sr.'s Classic Negro Spirituals was released in the late 1950s. In "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," Johnson taught him to sing the word "Jordan" as "Jerden." It seems like a small change, but McFerrin says he "understood how every syllable, every note, was important to be rendered correctly."

For his own version on Spirityouall, McFerrin admittedly sings the word as "Jordan," though he follows Johnson's lead in live performance.

"I think it's because when I recorded it, I wasn't sure because I hadn't sung the songs often enough to know intuitively how something should be done," he says. "After singing the piece over and over again, 'Jerden' is the correct pronunciation. It feels right."

McFerrin says his father's voice is ever-present in his mind, especially when he conducts and works with a choir: "I insist on his round, warm tone when I'm working with a choir," he says. His father was very studious, making notes on scores with a pencil — something Bobby McFerrin now does himself.

"But when I was working on this record, it was very loose," McFerrin says. "I'm a quick study. I go for the understanding first. I might not get the notes right, but if I hear a piece once or twice and come to know what it's about –- to understand a piece -– then after that, everything just comes very easily for me, very quickly."

'Only He Will Release My Feet'

If you ever drop by McFerrin's house, he says you'll probably see him in his chair with a Bible in his lap. In "25:15," he takes two lines from Psalm 25 and turns it into a deeply bluesy spiritual.

"I was reading it, and I came across this verse and started singing it because I wanted to remember it," McFerrin says. "That's how this song came to be. This was a record of my remembering this verse. It's just those two lines over and over and over again: 'You know my eyes are ever on the Lord, for only He will release my feet from the snare.' Only He will release my feet. We struggle and strain and push and pull and try to get ourselves out of all kinds of mental, emotional trouble, but there's only one who can really help you. If you turn to your physician, Dr. Jesus, He can help you figure stuff out."

These spirituals come not only from his father, but also from a place of deep faith.

"I never saw or heard my father pray, but when he sang the spirituals, I heard him pray," McFerrin says. "You could tell he was praying these words. He wasn't just singing them; he was praying them. I always made it a practice before I would go out on stage that I would ask the Lord to somehow anoint my words so that it reaches people's hearts. That's always been my approach."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Listen to Bobby McFerrin onstage warming up with his band and it's like you're listening to an entire orchestra bubbling up through one man's body.

(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL)

BLOCK: He becomes a flute, violin, muted trumpet, percussion - a bird; you name it.

(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL)

BLOCK: Bobby McFerrin's latest recording is an album he's wanted to make for many years - Negro spirituals. Some are classic spirituals with their roots in enslaved communities; others, he composed himself. And through all of them, he hears the influence of his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., a renowned operatic baritone.

Bobby McFerrin remembers visits to the family's New York apartment from Hall Johnson, the great African-American musician, composer and choir director who devoted himself to preserving and elevating the spiritual as an art form.

BOBBY MCFERRIN: Spirituals were music that I heard in the home as a very early child - 6, 7 years old. I do have memories of my father being instructed by Hall how to sing something; standing over him as my father was at the piano, sort of working with the notes. And Hall would say, no, no, no. You need to sing it like this; or, this word is pronounced this way - you know.

BLOCK: And Hall Johnson, how do you explain the role he played?

MCFERRIN: Well, Hall Johnson, his grandmother was a slave, and his grandmother would sing these pieces to him. So when he was teaching my father how to sing them, he knew exactly what he was talking about. He knew how to stretch a phrase, how to pronounce a word. You know, my father was very exact in his pronunciations. I grew up around two parents who insisted on correct grammar and correct pronunciations of the words that we spoke.

BLOCK: Well, your father, Robert McFerrin Sr., recorded Negro spirituals back in the '50s.

MCFERRIN: Fifty-seven.

BLOCK: And let's take a listen - '57.

MCFERRIN: Yeah.

BLOCK: Let's take a listen to some of his recording of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

MCFERRIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")

ROBERT MCFERRIN SR.: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot comin' for to carry me home. I looked over Jerdan and what did I see comin' for to carry me home? A band of angels comin' after me, comin' for to carry me home...

MCFERRIN: Jerden and not Jordon. I looked over Jordan - you know - Hall taught him to sing Jerden. Things like that, little things that we wouldn't think much about or just pass over, you know, he understood how every syllable, every note, was important to be rendered correctly.

BLOCK: You had kind of a faraway look in your eyes as you were listening to that.

MCFERRIN: Oh, just listening to that heavenly, wonderful voice - what a voice. And he was a baritone, but he had such a light quality to it.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")

MCFERRIN SR.: (Singing) Comin' for to carry me home...

MCFERRIN: You know, it's so easygoing. Wonderful, wonderful rendition. I haven't heard that in a very long time.

BLOCK: Really?

MCFERRIN: Yeah.

BLOCK: Well, let's take a listen to your version of that same spiritual, on your new album.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")

MCFERRIN: (Singing) I looked over Jordan and what did I see comin' for to carry me home? A band of angels comin' after me, comin' for to carry me home...

It's very interesting. I sang the word Jordan.

BLOCK: Yeah.

MCFERRIN: However, in performance, I sing Jerden.

BLOCK: You do?

MCFERRIN: Yeah, and I think it's because when I recorded it, I wasn't sure because I hadn't sung the songs often enough to know intuitively how something should be done. And after singing the piece over and over and over again - you know, Jerden is the correct pronunciation.

BLOCK: It feels right.

MCFERRIN: It feels right, yeah.

BLOCK: It's interesting to contrast these two versions - your dad's and yours - 'cause his is such a - it's a big, dramatic statement...

MCFERRIN: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...and yours becomes this really delicate, gentle riff.

MCFERRIN: I've actually heard that before. Things sound a bit transparent - weightless.

BLOCK: Was that the effect you were going for?

MCFERRIN: I never know what I'm going for when I'm working on a piece. I try not to have some sort of musical objective; and let the song sing itself, and see where it takes me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")

MCFERRIN: (Singing) Comin' for to carry me home...

BLOCK: I'm talking with Bobby McFerrin. His new album is "Spirityouall." How much is your father's voice in your head, in your mind still?

MCFERRIN: All the time.

BLOCK: Really?

MCFERRIN: Yeah. Especially when I'm conducting, I insist on his round, warm tone when I'm working with a choir.

BLOCK: And what about for your own singing? I mean, when I've watched you perform, there's a real looseness and freedom to it that sounds very different from...

MCFERRIN: Yeah, he was a lot more studious. He'd have the score on his lap, and he'd be singing softly to himself; and he'd be making notes on the page, with a pencil. I do that when I'm studying a score. But when I'm working, like when I was working on this record, it was very loose. I'm a quick study. I go for the understanding first. I might not get the notes right, but if I hear a piece once or twice and come to know what it's about - to understand the piece - after that, everything just comes very easily for me, very quickly.

BLOCK: Let's talk about one of the songs that you composed. You take two lines from Psalm 25...

MCFERRIN: Yeah.

BLOCK: ... and you turn it into this really deeply bluesy spiritual, which you call "25:15."

MCFERRIN: Yeah, "25:15," yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "25:15")

MCFERRIN: (Singing) You know that my eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare...

I read through the Bible constantly. I'm always in this book. If you drop over to my house, you'd probably see me sitting in a chair with the Bible open on my lap. And Psalms is my favorite book in the Bible. So I was reading it, and I came across this verse and started singing it because I wanted to remember it. (Laughing) You know,

You know, (Singing) my eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare.

Only he will release my feet. We struggle and strain and push and pull, and try to get ourselves out of all kinds of mental, emotional trouble. But there's only one who can really help you. If you turn to your physician, Dr. Jesus, he can help you figure stuff out.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "25:15")

MCFERRIN: (Singing) From the snare...

BLOCK: It sounds like these spirituals are coming - for you - from a place of really deep religious conviction, religious faith. Is that ...

MCFERRIN: Yeah, that's true...

BLOCK: ...critical to understanding them, do you think?

MCFERRIN: That's very, very true. You know, I never saw or heard my father pray. But when he sang the spirituals, I heard him pray 'cause you could tell that he was praying these words. He wasn't just singing them, but he was praying them.

And I always made it a practice, before I would go out on stage, that I would ask the Lord to somehow anoint my words so that it reaches people's hearts, you know. That's always been my approach.

BLOCK: Well, Bobby McFerrin, thanks so much for coming in. It's great to have you here.

MCFERRIN: (Singing) You're welcome. You're welcome...

BLOCK: (Laughing)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BLOCK: BLOCK: Bobby McFerrin, his new album is "Spirityouall," and...

MCFERRIN: (Singing) You're listening, you're listening to NPR ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening, you're listening, you're listening to NPR ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening, you're listening to NPR ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.