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Eric Bibb Asks People to 'Get on Board'

Eric Bibb grew up amid the New York City folk scene in the 1950s and '60s, a scene he calls "a magical world that I was born into and never left." Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan would drop by his house. Paul Robeson was his godfather, and his uncle John Lewis famously played with the Modern Jazz Quartet. But Bibb has since become a blues guitarist and songwriter in his own right. His latest album, Get On Board, pays tribute to his musical and spiritual heroes.

Bibb calls his father, Leon Bibb, "the key to my career. I was fascinated by his singing voice." The younger Bibb started out on a steel-stringed guitar, the "cheapo" guitar of his day. Later, he acquired a classical guitar and began to study, though he says he eventually found his own way. "Finally," Bibb says, "I discovered that there was nothing more alluring than actually playing and singing ... and accompanying myself and writing songs." For him, it turned into a career.

The track that opens his new album, "Spirit I Am," is a Sunday-morning song. "It's been interesting to slowly but surely find ways to assert my own identity with the whole, the oneness of all things," Bibb says of his spirituality. "To put that into music that sounds sincere and has the emotional effect of your heroes, like Mahalia Jackson, is challenging."

The song actually came from a chant a friend of his wrote with different lyrics. The friend hadn't been paid for a gig, so he sang, "I live for the money I earn," but the melody moved Bibb. He changed the line to "I live for the spirit, I am." He says the words that came to him made him think about who he is, and why he's alive.

Bibb says that Beale Street in Memphis has historically been a mecca for Southern musicians. B.B. King got his start on radio in Memphis, and Howlin' Wolf and Elvis Presley started their careers there. Bibb calls it a place "rich in dreams and music," and he tries to re-create the way it used to be on Beale Street on "New Beale Street Blues."

Memphis was also the site of many landmarks in Civil Rights history, including the sanitation workers' strike of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis to support the striking workers when he was assassinated. Bibb says that "Step by Step" was "inspired by a need to pay tribute to the work of Dr. King and his wife Coretta," and that he reads what Dr. King left behind and tries to apply it to his own life.

"Get on Board" closes the album. Bibb says that train songs have always been important, particularly to those obsessed with freedom, because they move fast and powerfully across borders. Train songs are inclusive; they often remind the listener that anyone can get on board. As Curtis Mayfield sang, "Don't need no ticket."

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