Posts Tagged ‘Pete Seeger’

bobby mcferrinLast week Debbie and I were lucky enough to see Bobby McFerrin perform in Central Park. It was a beautiful evening, it was a free show, and we got there early enough to get good seats, spreading out a blanket as the sky darkened for his ninety minute performance.

Watching McFerrin sing is a revelation – most striking is how relaxed he is on stage. I’ve often felt that a performer’s greatest strength comes from being relaxed and open to the moment, and McFerrin is the king of that. From the second he came on, it felt like the stage was his home and we were visiting him. He sat easily in a chair, or wandered casually among his band members, as he went through most of the songs on his new album, “Spirit You All”, a deeply religious recording that recasts a number of spirituals and numbers from the Black church, as well as original compositions and a take on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.

While McFerrin is a virtuoso and  a master he does not show off –  while he has an incredible range and great falsetto,  most of the time his voice is a relaxed, easy, normal sounding voice. Many performers spend a lot of time building up a wall between themselves and their audience through their virtuosity – the message is “Don’t try this at home – you’re not like me”. Not McFerrin –  he’s not trying to blow you away – although he does every once in a while with some amazing displays, all done with humor and class. Instead, he uses his art to build a bridge. Out of this relaxation and comfort on stage comes his improvisation – you get the sense he is really playing – playing with his own voice, with the musicians around him, and with the audience.

Especially with the audience. In interviews, McFerrin talks about his interest in taking the focus off himself and putting it on the audience, so they are part of the experience and performance. If you’ve seen him live, you know how good he is at this – better than anyone else, even my guiding light, Pete Seeger. Wandering into the audience while singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (including verses where the gender shifts to “She’s got…”) he held up the microphone to a half  dozen people. EVERY ONE OF THEM SANG. REALLY WELL! They sang well because he knew they could. Their success made us all feel part of it, and also affirmed McFerrin’s message – we all have a voice.

In a great interview with Krista Tippett  Bobby talks about American Idol and says, “They have good voices. They sing in tune. But so what? What are you saying?”

I think about all these things when I do a show. I think about how I can make the audience part of what I’m doing, so it’s something we’re doing together. Those of you who have seen my story “Build Me Up Buttercup” will know what I mean. Like McFerrin, I want to do something that says “We all have a voice.” Watching Bobby McFerrin makes me want to do it better.

Here’s another link to an amazing demonstration he gives of the pentatonic scale. 


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Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a half dozen reminders of the purpose and power of people singing together. Since I get paid to stand in front of people and sing by myself, I realize the inherent paradox. But, really, singing together is what people have always done. There’s less of it today – we leave it to the “professionals” (me?) and forget that we’re happier and healthier if we open up our mouths and belt it out with the people around us. This has nothing to do with virtuosity, or perfect pitch, or being a soprano or alto or whatever. It has to do with being human.

A couple of Mondays ago I got together with a half dozen songleaders in Providence for unisong, organized by Jodi Glass. People worked with the songleaders of their choice for twenty minutes, then we all met for the “performance” – for no one but us. It was a blast. I led two songs I don’t generally sing – “Run Come See, Jerusalem”, which I had learned from my pal Derek Burrows, and “Wild Mountain Thyme” – the perfect beginning of summer song.

After that experience I got a hold of a recording I’ve been meaning to get for years – the Folkways recording of Pete Seeger’s Singalong Concert at Sanders Theater in 1980. It’s Pete at the height of his powers as a song leader, and a textbook for people interested in leading songs. What I’ve learned from Pete is that teaching the song is part of the performance, and also more than half the fun. When you hear a thousand people singing together, it’s pretty impressive.

Last Monday, I sang at the last town meeting for Paul Cuffee School – we sang a bunch of songs we all knew. The fifth graders even sang, knowing it was the last time they were going to get a chance to do it. I’ve sung the same songs with them for six years, and that day, with everyone singing, it felt good and right.

Last, I was lucky enough to be a performer at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, NY last weekend, and sat in the “audience” for sessions on shape note singing (a form of choral singing popular in nineteenth century America) and gospel. You get goosebumps all over being part of it, and it’s not about having a “professional voice”. In a large group, individual voices can be heard, but questions of pitch, vocal quality, and even singing the right words become less important – it all gets mixed up together. What I’m most struck by in these experiences is that people are a group animal, and singing is an expression and fostering of community.

All of this was in my mind many years ago when I managed to talk a bunch of singers and activists to make a recording of Freedom Songs from the Civil Rights Movement, I’m Gonna Let it Shine. We were in a retreat center for three days and recorded, a capella, twenty songs. There, in that cold barn in April, voices joined together into something that was almost holy.

Here’s a song from that session, “Get On Board” with Chuck Neblett, one of the original Freedom Singers, leading. Click 01 Get On Board, Children.

All this reinforces my resolve to get audiences to sing more. It’s a better show when everyone is part of it.

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