Bobby McFerrin: Spirituals As Sung Prayers On Spirityouall, McFerrin performs classic black spirituals with roots in enslaved communities, as well as songs he composed himself. Throughout the album, he says, he hears the influence of his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., a renowned operatic baritone.
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Bobby McFerrin: Spirituals As Sung Prayers

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Bobby McFerrin: Spirituals As Sung Prayers

Bobby McFerrin: Spirituals As Sung Prayers

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


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.


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


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.


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



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.


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

BLOCK: Really?


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


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...


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.


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...


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

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



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)


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.

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