Voice of Change

Mavis Staples bears soulful witness to history


When I’m singing, I have a picture in my head of what I’m singing about,” explains Mavis Staples, “because I can remember what was happening when I was first singing it, as we marched. I’m reliving the time, but I’m sharing it with this audience that has come to see us.”

The lifelong gospel-soul singer is talking about the music with which she came of age, singing on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. These are songs she returned to for her powerful 2007 CD We’ll Never Turn Back, and which she continues to feature on tour this summer, including her first-ever appearance at the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival this weekend. It’s a recording she readily admits felt important.

“I felt that it was time for some freedom songs again,” she continues, settling into a reflective mood from her home office in Chicago, remembering the history-making marches through the Deep South along with the Rev. Martin Luther King. “These are songs that we sang as we marched during the movement. I grew up singing these songs, and I just felt that the generations today, they need to hear these songs and to know what we went through in order for them to be able to live like they are today.”

Spare and impeccably produced by Ry Cooder, We’ll Never Turn Back features potent traditional songs like “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” alongside more recent, like-minded material such as the Mavis-penned title song. “When I saw Katrina, my heart went out and I thought about Dr. King and what would Dr. King do, what would he say,” she reflects.

That connection dates back to 1961 when Staples’ father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the patriarch and leader of the acclaimed Staples Singers, took his performing family to see King preach in Montgomery, Ala. Afterward, she says, “Pops called us to his room, and said, ‘Listen y’all, I really like this man’s message. And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.’ So we began writing freedom songs, joined the movement.”

That was a notable change, as the Staples were by then among the top gospel performers in the country. Breaking through with “Uncloudy Day,” an astonishing commercial success in 1956, they had become known as “God’s greatest hit makers.” But as they became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, the Staples moved into a style that was dubbed “folk-soul,” and showed a willingness to reach out musically, recording Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth.”

A third, even more dramatic stylistic change followed a few years later, as the group signed with Stax Records and soon hit their popular peak with such crossover soul hits as “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” while enduring sharp criticism from some quarters for this supposed transgression away from their faith.

“The church people wanted to put us out of church for singing ‘I’ll Take You There,'” she acknowledges. “They called that the devil’s music. We had to do so many interviews telling the people, ‘You know, the devil ain’t got no music. All music is God’s music.’ And if you’d listen to our lyrics, you’d see we’re talking about taking you to Heaven.” (The one time the group truly crossed into the secular, Mavis says, was when Curtis Mayfield persuaded Pops to record the soundtrack hit “Let’s Do It Again.”)

Mavis started out singing the baritone voice in the family quartet, but was promoted to the lead role, against her preference, as her brother Purvis’ voice “changed overnight when he reached puberty.” She soon realized her heavy contralto also had the range to reach the necessary high notes, and came to relish the extended, gospel-derived ad-lib riffing that closes many of her finest performances, from “Respect Yourself” to the highly personalized “My Own Eyes” and “I’ll Be Rested” from We’ll Never Turn Back.

These extended moments are a highlight for Staples. “It’s still a part of what I’ve been singing about on the song, but I’m just riding the music,” Mavis explains. “It’s a good feeling, an up feeling, and you just float. I feel as light as a feather.”

Mavis Staples appears with Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Buddy Miller and more on Sunday, June 28, at the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival running June 26-28. Black Oak Ranch, 50250 Hwy. 101, Laytonville. $35-$80. 707.829.7067.

Sonoma County Library