From British daily The Guardian:
The long march
Mavis Staples helped soundtrack the 60s civil rights movement. Now the only member of the Staple Singers regularly performing, she tells Laura Barton she’s hoping Barack Obama will finish what Martin Luther King started
Tuesday April 15, 2008
The jazz writer Stanley Crouch once described the sound of the Staple Singers as “joy and thunder”. From the 50s, the family group, led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples, married a rumbling gospel with soul and blues and politics, creating hits such as I’ll Take You There and Respect Yourself. Today, only Mavis, the youngest member, continues to perform; her father died in 2000, her brother Pervis has retired, her sister Cleotha suffers from Alzheimer’s, while her other sister, Yvonne, sings occasional back-up on tour. So it is reassuring to hear Mavis Staples’ powerful new album, recorded with Ry Cooder, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Original Freedom Singers: that distinctive voice is still there – still joyful, still thunderous.
This afternoon, Staples recalls the day the president of her record company suggested she record an album of freedom songs. She was sceptical. “I said, ‘D’you think people want to hear freedom songs today?'” But she soon realised, she says, the strength of the idea: “Because Dr King, he brought us a mighty long way, but the bigotry, the injustice, it’s all still here.” She looks ferocious, in spite of her make-up and pale pink scarf. “We’re freer, but we’re not equal – in our jobs, our schooling, we’re still at the bottom of the totem pole. And Dr King, his dream is not being realised.”
The music of the Staple Singers soundtracked the civil rights movement: it was their songs that were sung on protest marches; Martin Luther King was a close friend of Pops Staples. “Pop, he always told the songwriters: if you wanna write for the Staples, read the headlines,” she says. “‘Cause we wanna sing about what’s happening in the world. And this is still happening.” She shakes her head with dismay. “Every time I pick up the paper. In Chicago today, a black family can move into a neighbourhood, and they get all settled in and the next morning they wake up, their garage is spraypainted: n-word, get out. It’s terrifying. I looked at [Hurricane] Katrina, I had flashbacks. My sister and I, we feel it from time to time – the girl behind the desk, she’ll see us standing there looking right at her, but she’ll wait on the white person. And I’m easy, but Yvonne, she won’t take it. She’ll say, ‘Well, wait a minute! We’re next! Don’t try that!'” …
These reminiscences are delivered over the songs like freestyle poetry, and cover the time Staples first became aware of racial segregation (someone remonstrated with her for almost drinking from a white drinking fountain when she was eight); the time the Staple Singers were arrested in Arkansas; and the occasion when she inadvertantly integrated a launderette in Mississippi. “I was down in Mississippi visiting my grandfather,” she recalls, “and I went up to the laundromat. I didn’t know there was a white side and a black side, but I went in and I happened to go in the black side, and all the machines were taken. And I said, ‘I can’t wait!’ So I was on my way back to my grandfather’s and on the way I passed the white side; just two white ladies sitting in there. So I went in, started washing, they didn’t say anything to me. All of a sudden, black ladies, I saw ’em peepin’ … ” She starts to laugh. “And I guess they thought, ‘Oh, she’s in there’, so they came over and started washing their clothes, too. And when I got back to the house, my grandfather was preaching, ‘Yeah, my baby Mable!’ – he never called me Mavis, he just had one tooth. Someone had gone round and told him, ‘Your grand-baby has gone and integrated the washeteria!'”
I ask Staples why she thinks music played such a significant role in the civil rights movement, and she tells me about going back to Washington DC to speak to congressman John Lewis, an associate of King who has written the album’s liner notes. “He said to me, ‘Your father, your family, you all kept us going, your music kept us going, the songs you sang kept us going.’ And they did, we were writing our own freedom songs. March Up Freedom’s Highway – we wrote that for the march from Selma to Montgomery. And It’s a Long Walk to DC, But I Got My Walking Shoes On – we wrote that for the march to Washington.
“Music is good for the soul,” she continues. “It just kept you marching. And we would march all day, and then we’d go to someone’s house and have a big dinner, then we’d just all talk about what we’d done that day. It reminded me of the folk singers, when they’d call us to the folk festivals, and there’d be Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Richie Havens. And after we sang the festivals, they’d take their acoustic guitars and go to one of these big houses and just sit on the floor and just everybody sing together. There’s songs on the CD that relate to that time, like We Shall Not Be Moved – we’d go to a restaurant and they wouldn’t serve us, and they’d call the police to get us outta there. And we’d lock arms and we’d sing, ‘We shall, we shall not be moved,’ and everybody would just hold as tight as we could until the police came and pulled us apart. Music is just powerful.”
Does she feel that musicians have a political responsibility? “I have to speak only for us,” she says, tentatively. “But I would love to hear other singers sing it. I would love to hear a rapper rap freedom. We thought about it too late – if I had asked Common or Kanye [see also here] to rap on just on one song, maybe.” She sighs, her mood turned cloudy at the opportunity missed. “Because you want the young people to hear these songs. You want them to know their black history. I had a schoolteacher living next door to me, and she told me that when Rosa Parks passed away, a girl in her class, 17 years old, asked her, ‘What did she do? Who was she?’ And Rosa Parks started it all!”
See also here.