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.