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."
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.