Bobby McFerrin grew up hearing the great Negro spirituals from one of history's finest interpreters of the genre—his own father.
Robert McFerrin, Sr., the first African-American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, brought a polished beauty to those old songs with his rich, booming baritone.
Young Bobby fell in love with the songs. But while he became an acclaimed vocalist himself, winning ten Grammy awards, and has embraced those spirituals his entire life, he never got around to making a gospel album.
Until now, almost seven years after his father's death.
McFerrin, 63, finally decided to record his favorite spirituals—plus a few extras—for the recently released spirityouall (Sony Masterworks). It's a jazzy, improvisational album, with hints of pop, blues, country, and more—typical McFerrin, meaning there's little that's typical about it.
The record includes such favorites as "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." There are a couple McFerrin originals. There's also a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."
And, yeah, it's really good. But why did he wait so long?
"It took me a long time to sing these songs because my father's voice was so strongly in my ear," McFerrin told Christianity Today. "I couldn't sing them until I could find my own way, my own voice."
McFerrin corresponded via e-mail with CT contributing editor Mark Moring for this interview.
Your father sang these old spirituals with such precision, polish, and power, but you bring a certain lightness and improvisation to your renditions. What would your dad think?
I wish my dad were alive to hear this album, and to see the way we're performing the songs live, letting them evolve every night. I don't know what he'd say. It's a very different approach. I could never sing these songs the way he did; he did that better than I ever could. His way is formal, very polished, very rehearsed, but still somehow manages to always feel immediate and personal. That's just not my way; we're very different singers.
But we do have some things in common. My family went to church and talked about God often, but I never saw my father pray until I watched him sing the spirituals. Then I saw him pray. I think if my dad could come see me sing the spirituals, he'd see me praying too!
Your manager and producer, Linda Goldstein, likens the album to "the feeling you get when people read from the Bible out loud, generations of individuals all saying the same words a little differently." Was that your intent?
I would never have thought of that image, but I love it.
This project is new territory for me. It shows a new range of influences like blues and rock and folk. And it speaks directly about faith. But it's part of an ongoing journey. Looking at familiar tunes or repeating motivic ideas every way round, revisiting riffs with just a slightly different spin or color to open up a whole new meaning, these are always part of what I do, how I hear things.
For me it's always been related to the visceral feeling of coming back to visit familiar rhythms and ideas, like the passages in the Bible I read again and again. Singing and reading the Bible are both part of my everyday life. So is walking my dog and driving and going to the grocery store. There are so many things in life we do again and again, but each time we have choices. The possibilities are endless.
Talk a bit about how your own faith is reflected in this project.
For me all singing is praying, and I always hope to reach the audience on a spiritual level. That's not new. But spirituality is a very private thing for me. I enjoy going to church sometimes, but it's not the center of my relationship with God. I spend a lot of quiet time with God. I usually spend an hour or two each morning reading and praying. My favorite is the Book of Psalms, a songbook, right there in the middle of the Bible. Sometimes the praying turns into singing; that's how the song "25:15" came about [on the new album].
I've always tried to let each person in the audience take what they needed, what they were ready for, what was relevant to their own circumstance. I've always invited the audience to watch my journey into my own imagination and consider taking their own journey. I don't insist; I invite. I wanted them to go home and make up songs and be silly too. I realized the same could true for faith. Everybody has faith. Mine is grounded in Christianity, and a personal relationship with God. But I would hope that a Muslim or an atheist could listen to this album and feel moved. I think everyone can relate to searching for faith in times of struggle, feel the groove, revel in the joyful experience of being alive in the world. I wanted to find a way to talk about the spirit that would open doors within people and between people, that wouldn't close the door on anyone.
Did you grow up in the church?
I was raised in the Episcopal church, and I sang in the choir as a boy. Bach, not gospel. Very disciplined. My mom was in charge of my religious education and she was also a great believer in music. She felt it was healing to the soul. For me, all music is prayer. The word in the Bible that got translated as spirit also means breath. I love that. Without breath, without the Spirit, you can't sing. I couldn't do what I do without faith.
What do you think of the label "Christian musician"?
There are some amazing musicians who devote their lives to making music for worship. I admire them, and we have some things in common. My music comes from a place of prayer too. But I make music that lives in the everyday world.
One of the things I learned from my dad is to thank God for whatever gifts you possess and to do your best to let those gifts do their work in the world. I think my gift is inclusion. I don't sing jazz and classical music and folk music and world music or vocal music and instrumental music or sacred music and secular music. I just sing music. All my influences are mixed up together in my ears and in my heart. It feels right for the music to inhabit a place of inclusion.
So I don't think of myself as a jazz musician or a black musician or a Christian musician or an American musician or a serious musician or a silly musician. I'm just one person up there singing to a bunch of other people. Whoever they are, whatever language they speak, whatever their beliefs or concerns, we are in the moment together. I try to bring audiences into the feeling of joy and freedom I have when I sing. A feeling that our existence here on earth is pretty miraculous.
Many old spirituals were borne out of a place of pain and lament, and much of today's modern worship completely misses that. Where do you think such songs "fit" in the church today?
I think songs of lamentation are important, not just in church. Music helps people work through whatever they are feeling. The music takes us forward through time, a lot like life: we walk forward through whatever's before us, not knowing the outcome. Whatever difficulties we're going through, whether we need to grieve or struggle or accept or surrender, music helps. Music reminds us of the joy of being alive.
You covered Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" on the new album. Tell me about that decision, and how you interpreted it for this project.
The song just moved me—the lyrics especially, though I'm not sure that what they mean to me is what they mean to Bob Dylan. Don't we all long to be released? Once I got the idea in my head that the song should be on this album, I was afraid to go back and listen to Dylan singing it; I thought it might influence me too much. So I'm not even sure I'm singing the melody exactly right. I just love the song though, and I think Gil Goldstein's arrangement is really beautiful.
You first hit it big with the 1988 hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." I have to ask, is that a "gospel song" in disguise? Especially the lyrics, "ain't got no place to lay your head" (Luke 9:58) and "in your life expect some trouble" (John 16:33).
It's just a pop song, born in a moment of silliness and play. But that doesn't mean it doesn't reflect all those great lines of Scripture that I've read so many times.
Some people hear that song as a serious philosophical statement, some hear it as ironic, some think it's fluff, some think it's profound. They're all right. I read the Bible every day, so my mind is full of those ideas and words and rhythms. Why shouldn't they come out in a lighthearted pop song?
I think a lot about my mission in life: I think my job is to bring people into a sense of freedom and wonder and joy. When that happens, community happens. People laugh and sing together and suddenly the room feels different. So maybe part of my mission is also is to erase invisible dividing lines, lines between cultures or musical genres or people with differing beliefs. It's all part of creation. We live under a very big sky. Clearly God has a pretty incredible imagination. Who knows what crazy ideas he might put into my head next!
Mark Moring, a former pop culture editor at CT, is a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta, where he helps non-profit organizations with fundraising.