(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
M: (Singing) Woke up this morning soon singing this song. Don't you know the words came to me in a dream so strong? Some say we got to shout the good news and heed the call. People, let's spread the word, hallelujah. God's kingdom is in our soul.
LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Eric Bibb describes his new recording, "Get On Board," as a further exploration into the place where blues meets gospel and soul. Bibb has been writing and performing and recording both in the United States and abroad for decades. Not only is music in his soul, it's in his genes. In junior high, Eric Bibb would cut school to stay home, where he received most of his musical education.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
M: (Singing) Spread the Word, hallelujah. God's kingdom is in our soul.
My dad, Leon Bibb, is a wonderful singer. And the world that he introduced me to as a child was the fascinating world of folk music around New York City in the late '50s and '60s. People who would come by would be people like Josh White or Odetta, Pete Seeger; I met Bob Dylan in my own home when I was 11 years old. In addition to that, my mom's brother was John Lewis, the great John Lewis from the Modern Jazz Quartet, composer and pianist. It was just a magical world that I was born into and never left.
HANSEN: Your first instrument was a steel-stringed guitar.
M: Yeah. Those were the cheapo guitars. I eventually got a better instrument, which happened to be a classical guitar, and I studied some classical guitar for a while. Finally I discovered that there was nothing that was more alluring than actually playing and singing guitar and accompanying myself and writing songs, and that turned into a career.
HANSEN: You also, with your words and your lyrics and kind of a new world gospel going on, very first cut, "Spirit I Am." I am - those are profound words, and they're ones that narrow down the message in many different sacred traditions. Tell us a little bit about writing that song.
M: As you say, in many traditions, the I am statement, it's a prayer, it's a powerful affirmation of identity, spiritual identity. And for me, it's been interesting to slowly but surely find ways to assert my own identity with the whole, the oneness of all things. And to put that into music that sounds sincere and has the emotional effect of your heroes like Mahalia Jackson is challenging.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SPIRIT I AM")
M: (Singing) What I'm here for I wonder. What am I in this world to do? What I'm here for is one thing - one thing I know is true. I live for the spirit I am. I live for the spirit I am. Oh, I am, I am. I live for the spirit I am. I live for the spirit I am. Oh, I am, I am, I am.
So this song started out as a chant that a friend of mine in Sweden came up with. It had absolutely nothing to do with spirit. He actually sang a false lyric to the - something to the tune of, I live for the money I earn, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
M: And he hadn't gotten paid for a gig that he'd done so he came up with this little irritated mantra. And when he played it for me, I thought it was just such a powerful melody, and I went in the other direction and very quickly, the words I live for the spirit I am, came to me. And I followed it through, and I thought about what I'm here for and what I am, really, and who I am. And I wanted to affirm that in a way that other people could put into their own expression.
HANSEN: There's Sunday morning music on here, and there's Saturday night music on here. And going deeper into the heart of Saturday night, you go home and you light the candles and you're with the woman you love, and you have a conversation.
M: Yeah, especially if you're a musician and you're having to juggle several jobs, the trying to make ends meet, the trying to keep a marriage together is a challenge. And if you have a partner who values you and values herself, she's going to start asking those difficult questions about what are we really doing here, and are we making time for each other to flourish as a partnership or are we just maintaining the status quo and headed for a breakup. So that's what that song's about.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CONVERSATION")
M: Yeah, babe, I'm trying to slow down. But you and I both know we need the dough. But if we took a vacation, tell me, where would you like to go?
M: (Singing) Honey, I don't need no palm trees, just your undivided attention.
HANSEN: Oh, I mean, Ruthie Foster comes in and she sings, honey, I don't need no palm trees.
M: And the way she sings it, good lord.
HANSEN: Who is she, and how did she get to be the lucky gal in this song?
M: She is a contemporary of mine from Texas. We met at a folk festival in Canada, and I just heard this amazing voice and just felt compelled to befriend her and work with her. And this is the third on-record collaboration that we've done together.
HANSEN: For something a little upbeat, I love "Beale Street."
M: Beale Street is a mecca for musicians, particularly southern musicians. Blues players, ragtime pickers, horn players from New Orleans all made it through this wonderful Beale Street highway of music in Memphis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NEW BEALE STREET BLUES")
M: (Singing) We're going to Memphis to play on Beale. It's the place to go if we're going to make a Sunday deal. Bye-bye Durham. Bye-bye Chapel Hill. Going to ride till blind like Railroad Bill.
HANSEN: Staying on Memphis just for a second because Memphis was the site of the garbage men's sanitation strike.
HANSEN: And many other landmarks in civil rights history. And there's a flavor of the protest tradition; Richie Havens comes through quite a bit in some of the songs you've chosen to record. "Step by Step" is, I think, a good example of that, don't you think so?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "STEP BY STEP")
M: (Singing) Step by step we walk into freedom on a rocky road others walked before. Step by step we're going to meet up, every little light shines forever more.
And that song, "Step by Step," was definitely inspired by a need to pay tribute to the work of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, because this was a world leader, this was a universal messenger with an incredible sense of his own destiny. And I'm very inspired to read what he's left behind, and apply it to what's going on today.
HANSEN: Wonderful to talk about this on the 40th year since his...
HANSEN: ...assassination. One more song, and it's the title tune, "Get On Board."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GET ON BOARD")
M: (Singing) Don't you hear the whistle blowing, blowing through the air telling everyone you don't need no fare. Talking about love train coming around the bend. Oh, tell your mother and your father, sister, brother, children tell your friends. Drop whatever you're doing, this train won't wait. You want to get on board before it's too late.
HANSEN: What's the train's place in sacred imagery? Particularly the kind you can get on without a ticket.
M: The train image, I think for people who from day one obsessed with freedom, this is the legacy of slavery. Trains move and they move fast and they move powerfully across borders, across states in terms of imagery in traditional spirituals. There's an older song, get on board little children, get on board, there's room for many a more.
It's that wonderful, all inclusive, you're welcome to ride this train. You don't need money. Curtis Mayfield in "People Get Ready" said, you know, you don't need no ticket, you know, you just get on board.
HANSEN: Singer-songwriter Eric Bibb. His new recording is called "Get On Board," and it's on the Telarc label. He joined us from NPR studios at the BBC at Bush House in London. Eric Bibb, thanks a lot and good luck.
M: Thank you, Liane, it's been a real pleasure talking with you.
HANSEN: And happy Easter.
M: Happy Easter.
HANSEN: You can hear full songs from Eric Bibb's new album, "Get On Board," as well as discover more new music at npr.org/music.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.