Singing the Forgotten Mother Tongue
This semester I’m teaching a new course called “The Black Catholic Experience.” One of my students in the class, Jon, plays jazz piano. He has been especially fascinated with our study of the role of music in the Black Catholic church as a holistic form of prayer, a way of experiencing the divine that engages the whole body, head, spirit, and heart. As we’ve read about it and experienced it firsthand in several field trips to black Catholic churches, the music of the black church involves a highly communal and “emotive way of knowing,” quite distinct from the often individualized, intellectualized, buttoned-down, and “Western” approach to knowledge, prayer, and worship that most of my white students, Catholic or otherwise, are accustomed to.
The day that we sang spirituals in class, gathered around an electric piano I had set up in front of the room, Jon lingered after the period was over, and thanked me. His whole face was lit up with happiness. Since that day we seem to understand each other at a deeper level than the typical teacher-student relationship.
In a recent email exchange, he mentioned a video he’d seen of Bobby McFerrin, one of his favorite singers, teaching a “master class” and improvising with a talented group of young vocalists. Jon writes:
After a short improv demonstration, a student asked [McFerrin] where he came up with the sounds and syllables to his vocal improvisation. He answered that, for him, improvisation always involves some element of being attuned to the audience, “allowing the hearer to pair their own stories with the sounds I make.” He then shared a story about a man who introduced himself after one of his concerts as a French linguist who studies dying African languages. The man told McFerrin that his vocal improvisation mirrored a lot of those languages.
Jon then added this comment:
Talk about an ’emotive way of knowing’ and the power of music for the soul! The possibility that his ancestral roots are somehow incorporated into his improvisation’s language…It is crazy but poetic. Definitely a little out there, but I thought I would share it with you.
“Yes!” I responded immediately. “I think Bobby McFerrin is singing from the ‘forgotten mother tongue.'” (A phrase I first heard in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.) “And when we listen, he helps us remember.”
“By the way,” I added, “I think the best things in life are ‘crazy but poetic’ and ‘a little out there.’ I sense you believe and trust the same….”
“Absolutely resonates,” he wrote back. “Thanks for the insight.”
In an interview with NPR last year, Bobby McFerrin spoke movingly of his father’s way of being in the world, and his father’s way of singing, in which “every syllable, every note matters.” He continues:
I never saw or heard my father pray, but when he sang the spirituals, I heard him pray. You could tell he was praying these words. He wasn’t just singing them; he was praying them. 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. That’s always been my approach.
Is this what it means to sing, with all that we are and do, in the forgotten mother tongue? Anoint my words, and all that I am and do, so that it reaches people’s hearts.
Crazy. Poetic. A little out there. And surely an aspiration worth living for.
Here is “Common Threads” by Bobby McFerrin. No lyrics, just song, deeply melodic, beautiful, and resonant layers of song. And the one piece I know I want played at my funeral.
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