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Mavis Staples goes high

030913_mavisstaples_2685As soon as she made her first record with her family’s gospel-singing group in the early 1950s, Mavis Staples made it clear that she occupied a vocal and emotional register of her very own. At the age of 14, already she could invest the lines “Won’t be the water / But the fire next time” with an almighty dread. Today, at 78, she may have lost some of the range and raw power of her youth but she retains every ounce of the visceral impact. And in terms of its relevance to the state of the world, her new album, If All I Was Was Black, takes its place among the year’s most essential recordings.

It’s her third album with Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco. Tweedy wrote all 10 songs, three of them in collaboration with Mavis, and plays in the small band assembled for the project. The songwriting is superbly sensitive and appropriate, using various forms of primal guitar-led R&B as settings for lyrics dealing with the racism that has refused to go away in the 50 years since the Staple Singers recorded “Freedom Highway” and played their part in the civil rights struggle.

“Little Bit”, structured on a wiry riff reminiscent of the early Magic Band, deals with the deaths of boys and young men at the hands of the police. “Who Told You That” is similarly stripped-back, putting Mavis and her backing singers firmly in the spotlight as they reject advice not to “rock the boat” and to “stop acting up”. Mavis is at her most urgent on “No Time For Crying”, which hits a relentless groove like a cross between Tinariwen’s desert blues and Otis Taylor’s one-chord chants. “We Go High” marries a famous phrase from Michelle Obama’s speech in support of Hillary Clinton — “When they go low, we go high” — to a gentle, soulful tune that could have come from Curtis Mayfield. “Try Harder” is another exhortation; fuelled by a couple of fuzz guitars and a crunching riff, it could have come from the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” era. The album closes with the meditative “All Over Again”, in which the duet between Mavis and Tweedy’s finger-picked acoustic guitar reminds us that her dad, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, grew up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, listening to Charley Patton and Son House.

That’s one of the things I love about this deceptively simple-sounding album: in its search for a language with which to express its very immediate concerns, it makes connections with important traditions. Nourished by the deepest roots, it makes a direct and poignant address our own perplexing, disturbing time.

* The photograph of Mavis Staples is by Chris Strong.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. what an honor and musical privelege to have played bass on a few cuts with Cooder, Keltner,
    Pops, Mavis, and the other Staples for the album “Peace to the Neighborhood” long ago in 1992.

    December 18, 2017
  2. Steve Hurrell #

    Hello Richard,

    I wonder of you can help. Last year on the 19th December you gave a wonderful review of your favourite books, films and music from 2016. I am wondering whether you wil do the same this season?

    My partner has finally finished ‘Villa Triste’ by Patrick Modiano, which you’d recommended, and I gave to her for Christmas! She has enjoyed it.

    I am not a great or intrepid reader of fiction but like to offer her some unusual books at this time of year. Any suggestions posted would be most welcome.

    Thank you very much for all the varied writing and your blog posting this year. I always enjoy spotting a new mail arriving from

    Best seasonal wishes to you.

    Steve Hurrell


    December 18, 2017

    I’ve taken delivery of the new Mavis Staples CD within the last couple of days but haven’t had the chance to play it yet – I’ll be doing so later today. Her work over the last 10 years or so –
    the Ry Cooder-produced ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’ in particular – has been unmissable. It’s good to see Otis Taylor mentioned in your piece about ‘If All I Was Was Black’.Another essential 2018 CD is his wonderful ‘Fantasizing About Being Black’; probably the blues album of the year, I think.

    December 18, 2017
  4. Gareth Hickery #

    Hi Again

    RW and I are of similar mind on this one. Gareth


    December 18, 2017

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