The Common Good
March 2011

Sing Without Ceasing

by Julie Polter | March 2011

For nearly six decades, Mavis Staples has been bringing the gospel truth to song.

The rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, the attempt by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to bring live sketch comedy and social commentary to the people last October, had its difficulties, including overwhelming crowds and an insufficient sound system. But it ended on dual high notes. First, 84-year-old Tony Bennett sang "America, the Beautiful" a capella, letting it soar on "sea to shining sea." Then came 71-year-old Mavis Staples, backed by the Roots, leading a group sing of the Staple Singers' 1972 hit, "I'll Take You There."

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Both performances brought home to me the value of time-burnished voices. Time is not considered a friend to singers -- even a well-cared for voice will suffer some diminishments of range or texture eventually. But the warmth and clarity of Bennett’s singing spoke not of physical limits, but of a fullness that many younger singers would struggle to find. And as for Staples, who has been trying to take us to that place where "ain't no smilin' faces / lyin' to the races" for more than 50 years, there’s no sign that she brings any less power or drive to that endeavor than she did when she started.

Since that afternoon, I've found myself listening to a lot more Mavis Staples (no offense to Tony; I just lean more toward gospel and soul than to the great American songbook). And I’ve been pondering the riches, instead of the losses, of a voice enduring through time. In the case of Staples, those riches include not just the unique timbre of her instrument, but her use of that voice to testify to hard-earned hope and prophetic truths.

       

Mavis Staples never was a high soprano. While time may have simmered her voice into an ever-more complex sauce, she could go deep, baritone-deep, even when she was very young. Her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, brought his children up front to sing with him in Chicago churches in the late 1940s, accompanying them with his Mississippi-nurtured blues guitar. By the time the Staple Singers signed their first professional record contract in the 1950s, Mavis, still a teenager, was sharing lead vocals duties with Pops on gospel songs such as "Uncloudy Day."

In 1963, Mavis has written, her father heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak and was inspired to begin writing "freedom songs" and appearing at civil rights events. According to Mavis, "Pops told us, 'I like this man. I like his message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it.'" The Staple Singers' powerful harmonies worked the multiple meanings of freedom -- in spirit, body, and law -- that spirituals have always proclaimed, and Pops added his own songs, such as "Why Am I Treated So Bad" and "Long Walk to D.C.," to the freedom canon.

In 1968, the Staple Singers signed with Stax Records and adapted a more soul-influenced sound. This era brought their greatest commercial successes, including hits "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself." "Respect Yourself" is a funky anthem to the need for individual responsibility. But acknowledgement of systemic issues such as racism is present in a sharp, funny KKK reference: "You the kind of gentleman / that want everything your way / Take the sheet off your face boy / it's a brand new day."

As for "I'll Take You There," it seems to be in part a song about heavenly reward: "Ain't nobody crying / ain’t nobody worried" echoes Revelation 21:4, "God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." If gospel songs have sometimes been criticized for over-emphasizing heaven as a gold-paved escape from this world (see "Almost Heaven," page 44), "I'll Take You There," true to the trajectory of the Staple Singers' long career, brings home the political reality too: That God's reign rejects injustice and hypocrisy; for a place to be free of tears, it must also have “no more smiling faces, lying to the races."

Pops Staples died in 2000. Mavis, grief-stricken, stopped singing for a few years. With encouragement from her sister Yvonne, she returned to recording in 2004 with Have a Little Faith (Alligator Records), a mix of gospel-inflected songs, including classics like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and new tunes written by album producer Jim Tullio.

At that time, and in connection with subsequent projects, Mavis spoke of wanting to encourage people to not grow weary in the face of continuing poverty and injustice. This fits with a vocation of hope that elders can embrace, described by Joan Chittister: "Survival is what gives an older person the right to encourage a younger generation in the right to hope, to know that what is happening to them at the present moment is not the end either of the world or of their lives. There is always a resurrection in each of our lives, if we will only believe in it and give ourselves to its coming." While hope has always been in Mavis' music -- in her DNA -- in her more recent work she seems to be bringing to voice in a renewed way the life-giving wisdom earned from long experience of love, loss, and perseverance.

Her next album, We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-Records, 2007), marked a more robust return to the prophetic strand of her career. With spirited interpretations of civil rights-era freedom songs and new songs picking up on those social justice themes, We'll Never Turn Back is true to history without getting mired in nostalgia. In interviews at the time of the album’s release, Mavis expresses her frustration with the contemporary state of the world -- the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the persistence of racism, poverty, and violence. The songs are calls to shake off complacency -- and to find the power that faith and communal action can bring. In "99 and 1/2," a traditional spiritual with additional lyrics by Mavis and album producer Ry Cooder, she sings, "Down in Mississippi (it just won’t do) / Brothers in jail (it just won't do) / Uneducated children (it just won’t do) / It’s the 21st century (it just won’t do) / It feels like it’s 1960 (it just won’t do)." Original Freedom Singers Rutha Harris, Charles Neblett, and Bettie-Mae Fikes and South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo contribute backup vocals to the album.

Mavis Staples' newest album, released last September, is the critically acclaimed You Are Not Alone, produced by Jeff Tweedy, lead singer of the alt-rock band Wilco. Tweedy worked with Staples to select songs ranging from traditional gospel tunes she heard as a child, such as "Creep Along Moses," to covers of more recent blues, soul, and pop, including Allen Toussaint's "Last Train" and John Fogerty's "I Wrote a Song for Everyone." Whether singing the slow blues or a rollicking country-gospel shout, Mavis’ voice is warm and strong; sometimes scraping to a ragged edge, sometimes descending into a throaty growl, always rising again.

Tweedy wrote the title track, "You Are Not Alone," for Mavis. It is an achingly beautiful response to the universal experiences of loneliness and grief: "A broken home / a broken heart / isolated and afraid / open up this is a raid / I want to get it through to you / you’re not alone." Mavis sings gently, insistently, digging down low, as if determined to uncover the buried embers of a resistant heart. You know she's been there. And she made it back over. And she's here to tell you not to give up. Don’t ever give up.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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