Forty-two years after she participated in the watershed civil rights march
in Selma, Alabama, Mavis Staples came to Los Angeles, where she was honored
by the NAACP and given their Image Award. Mavis is the last active member
of the groundbreaking gospel group the Staple Singers. “When they knelt
down to pray, that’s when the police started beating them, and the dogs
and the hoses. It was somethin’,” said Staples, recalling the assault the
Selma police mounted against activists. Mavis has returned to those roots
and the fiery songs of confrontation and solidarity with her new CD, We’ll
Never Turn Back.
Most of the songs on the album date back to the days of civil rights demonstrations
and lunch counter sit-ins. For many Americans it was barely a generation
ago when “For Whites Only” was the law of the land in many parts of the
country. The Staple Singers were at the forefront of the civil rights movement
and the roots of these songs come from deep within the African American
Mavis Staples is one of the great voices in black culture, both as a singer
and as an activist. With We’ll Never Turn Back Staples comes up with an
outstanding album that deserves to be heard over and over. Blues and gospel
aficionados will not be disappointed. This is an album that showcases Staples’s
smoky voice and sets the tone of a determined peoples’ struggle.
The album’s sound is beautifully arranged and crafted by producer Ry Cooder
who uses many of the musicians he worked with on his recent My Name Is
Buddy CD, including drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Mike Elizondo.
“Down in Mississippi” opens the album. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the back-up
choir whose vocals open the song with a deep gospel refrain. Staples breaks
away from the traditional lyrics that describe the grisly results of searching
a river for slain civil rights workers to “talk” about her grandmother
and growing up during segregation.
“Eyes on the Prize” begins with a funky slide intro and drumbeat that only
someone like Keltner could come up with. In “This Little Light of Mine”
Staples wraps her voice around the song and never lets go. The effect is
like a gospel meeting in a juke-joint somewhere in the Delta.
“99 and ½” was covered by Wilson Pickett, but once again the combination
of Cooder’s arrangement with Staples’s vocals and rap come up with a hybrid
that defines the material as its own. Mavis and Ladysmith offer a rendition
of “We Shall Not Be Moved” that is about as soulful as it comes.
Closing out the album is “Jesus on the Mainline.” Staples and Cooder open
the song with a revival-type intro. The Freedom Singers contribute back-up
vocals on this song and six others. The result is sheer beauty. Nothing
short of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” ever sounded as soulful and
religious at the same time.
The Freedom Singers include Rutha Harris, Charlie Neblett, and Bettie-Mae
Fikes. The vocal group was an outgrowth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC). “These people, to them it’s still going on,” says Cooder.
When we stand there in the room and sing, they mean every word, it’s never
changed for them.”
It is this immediacy that Staples was looking for in the material’s delivery.
“My hopes are that this generation today would hear the songs and move
with them,” says Staples. “We need folk like us who were there and are
still here. We can witness…. We need to educate this generation. They need
to know what it was like and what we went through for them to be able to
vote today. Hopefully these songs will be heard.”
Staples was 19 and the lead voice in the Staple Singers when they recorded
Uncloudy Day. The group included her sister Cleotha, father Pops, and brother
Pervis. Pervis was later replaced by sister, Yvonne. Mavis had planned
to go to college and become a nurse, but opted for singing instead. Staples
and her family would log some 100,000 miles a year touring throughout the
country in those days. Initially a gospel group, they were later embraced
by the folk movement, and finally by rockers. They sang “The Weight” with
the Band at the “Last Waltz” concert and performed at the famed 1972 Watts
Festival. The group remained active until Pops’s death in 2000. Pervis
and Cleotha retired from the road, but Yvonne still travels with her sister,
performing duties as road manager and singing back-up.
Mavis has traveled the road less taken when it comes to her art. She has
stuck to her roots and been true to herself. In troubled times like these
Mavis Staples’s freedom songs provide a counterpoint to the country’s rise
in militarism and curtailment of civil rights. The songs remind us that
nothing worth having comes without a struggle. Staples’s singing on We’ll
Never Turn Back makes it a bit easier to keep your eyes on the prize.
John Zavesky is a freelance writer covering the arts and popular culture.