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Mavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back
Review by Mark Harrison

The Staples Singers were the house band for the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, and wherever Martin Luther King went, the great Pops was right with him. When kids do Black History Month at school here, they should do Pops sometimes. He wasn’t just a great musician, he was a great man.

Here, Mavis, who was of course there with them in The Staples Singers, revisits the soundtrack to those days and that movement. The record is a partnership between her and Ry Cooder, and together they give these, mostly familiar, mostly old songs a wholly different, edgy vibe, brimming with emotion and vigour. These are not tired and clichéd reworkings of stale old standards, but shiny, new versions by this great singer, surely in as great form as she’s ever been, and one of the finest, most tasteful players ever to pick up a guitar.

The story goes that Cooder, accustomed to turning down offers of projects to produce, jumped at the chance of this one. When he turned up at Mavis’s home in Chicago to discuss the project, it came up early in the conversation that Pops’ gear was still around (he died in 2000 aged 85). Cooder said he’d like a go on Pops’ guitar amp and it was brought round from Mavis’s sister’s place. Cooder instantly started playing Pops’ trademark riffs, sounding exactly like Pops. That was basically it for the discussions. The rest took care of itself.

Actually, Cooder doesn’t impersonate Pops on the record, and it is absolutely not a ‘tribute to the Staples Singers’ type of thing. Instead, it’s got its own musical identity. Some of the music is quite ‘heavy’, not in terms of volume but in terms of atmosphere. It’s not a lightweight rehashing of some nice, uplifting songs, and there’s anger and despair in there, as well as celebration and optimism. It’s not meant to wash over you, and it doesn’t. It’s blues gospel music, and the blues element gives bite to go with the emotion of the gospel element.

It is clear from much of what Mavis does on here that the Civil Rights days could all have happened yesterday. The passage of time has not made life in that period seem somehow folksier. Hindsight hasn’t led to the idea that things weren’t really as bad as bad can be – they haven’t got better just because it was a long time ago. Instead, hers is a defiant kind of hindsight. ‘Things were that bad,’ she seems to be saying, ‘and something had to be done. And some of us did what had to be done.’

Not that Mavis is suggesting for a moment that it’s all over, that everything’s fine right now, that it all had a happy ending. Indeed, on some tracks she makes it clear that even though things have moved on from the darkest days, there’s a still a lot of darkness around for many of the US’s black population and the need for change remains great. She laments this fact and is angry about it too.

Mavis provides a kind of commentary in some of the tracks. She talks/sings about how things were, and what her people did about it, and how things are now. The listener can weep with her at what was done to people in the past, be deeply affected with her by the efforts that people made to put right at least some of the wrongs, and share in her horror at some of what goes on today.

The record kicks off with a stunning rendition of J B Lenoir’s Down In Mississippi. This track is the one in which Cooder plays most in the style of the great Pops (who also covered the song, with Cooder playing and producing, on his fine 1992 solo album Peace To The Neighbourhood). Mid-way through, Mavis launches into a moving and powerful reminiscence of her childhood, about going with her grandma to get water and her grandma telling he she could only drink from the fountain with the ‘For Colored Only’ sign. The she talks about how she ‘integrated’ a washeteria, followed in there by other black women, and how proud her grandfather was of his ‘grandbaby’ for doing this. She concludes this trip down a very special branch of memory lane reflecting on how Dr King ‘saw that every one of those signs was taken down’. Her speech is punctuated by some terrific mandolin playing by Cooder, fronting a powerful backbeat. When you’ve heard the track, you feel like you need to take a little pause so that it can all sink in.

Eyes On The Prize is a swampy, funky, piece with some fine slide work from Cooder and some fine drumming. We Shall Not Be Moved builds into a slow rocker, with some fine snare work and Cooder’s trademark beautifully-judged guitar fills. Mavis moves easily through the gears on this one, cranking it up as the track goes along. Ladysmith Black Mambozo provide background vocals on these first three tracks, but the term doesn’t do justice to their contribution.

The SNCC Freedom Singers, veterans of the struggle too, put in their first appearance on In The Mississippi, and they stick around for just about all of the remaining tracks. Mavis does call and response with them, and it is chilling to realize that in this slow, funky number, they are singing about the pulling out from the river of the bodies of murdered black people. ‘We got to stop them from going in the river’, they sing, a statement that sums up in a few words what it probably takes many of hundreds of pages of some official report to say less clearly these days.

On My Way is a slow gospel number, Cooder playing acoustic slide. Cooder fans will know he’s quite good at that. Mavis gets up to full throttle and back down to humming. This Light Of Mine is a shuffle, with some subtle horn sounds in the background. 99½ is a funky, bright tune, during which Mavis takes a detour to discuss the current situation for some black people in her country, touching on lack of education, poverty and Katrina. She then winds herself up into a sung speech about God and heaven, but even if you don’t believe in it, I’ll bet you’d be yelling’ Yeah!’ at every line if you saw her do this one live.

My Own Eyes is a seven-minute tour de force, Mavis’s personal statement. She revisits her experiences with the Civil Rights Movement and draws a parallel with today. Katrina has reinforced in her the belief that ‘we need a change more than ever’. She then talks about her beloved and much missed father, and how he told her that ‘all this should have been taken care of long ago’. It’s been almost 50 years, she says and ‘why are we still treated so bad?’ Cooder gets rockier, Mavis goes into the zone.

Cooder kicks off Turn Me Around with some great mandolin playing, and the track wants to be danced to. It’s a statement of determination from someone who knows what the words really mean in action. The mandolin rocks, no plinking here, it’s a fully paid-up member of the rhythm section, and the track is a thrill. Next up is the title track, a slow, lump-in-the-throat job. It’s a statement of dignified defiance in the face of injustice and a lament for those who ‘died in the cause of equality’.

I’ll Be Rested is recognizable as a version of the old gospel song recorded by Blind Roosevelt Graves in 1936. Mavis talks in this about the people who ‘put their lives out on the front line’ during the struggle. As Mavis goes through the list of names, like the names of the fallen in World War 1, you feel that these people are being given the kind of recognition they would have liked. I don’t know most of these people, but the impression you get is that they were ‘ordinary, decent people’ who did extraordinary things that had to be done, who ‘went over the top’. Mavis moves into the well-known names towards the end and concludes that they will all have their reward in heaven ‘when the roll is called’. It’s a very moving experience to listen to. Another pause is required.

The record ends with a fantastic version of Jesus On The Mainline. It starts slowly, just Mavis and Ry on Pops-style guitar. And then it builds … and builds … and builds. Everyone comes pouring in and takes us all on out there.

I saw Mavis Staples at the Jazz Café in 2005. It was days after the 21st July attempted bombings on the tube, and few people in London can have been totally unaffected by the atmosphere in the city. The place was by no means full, perhaps for that reason, but it was a reasonable-sized crowd. Mavis had her road band of young musicians, all of whom were so tight and so good that their renditions of Staples Singers hits like I’ll Take You There and If You’re Ready lost little in comparison with the original records. Mavis’s older sister Yvonne was on stage with her, seemingly more for company than anything else. Mavis came on, said she was a bit tired, and then... something unforgettable happened.

She treated us to an hour and a half of magic in that small club that surely nobody present will ever forget. Where I was, you could hear Mavis’s singing coming straight at you, not out of the PA. It crackled through the air and held people in a kind of spell. It was an absolute privilege, like being invited to a private gig. People around me were crying and there was nothing cringe-making or phoney about that. People who probably hadn’t gone near a church in ages were weeping at the gospel numbers. It was sheer, torrential feeling. And some of that feeling, so enormous, so genuine that you can almost touch it, comes from the life she’s had and the family she comes from. I think it may be that there really is now just about nobody else like Mavis, and when she’s gone a whole thing will go with her.

People like me, or indeed anyone not directly involved or affected, obviously can’t claim first-hand kinship with what Mavis is on about in this wonderful record. My generation got it all second and third hand, via the telly – it was big and historic but it was happening far away, not part of our everyday lives. I suspect that to some witnessing it this way in their formative years, the Civil Rights Movement and the events surrounding it all seemed a bit glamorous. I doubt that glamorous is a word that people like Mavis or Pops would have associated with it. When Mavis talks about being free, it’s not what we mean by free in our relatively pampered lives, it’s the most basic meaning of free. Her people faced a grotesque reality on a daily basis; she is literally talking about life or death.

It’s constantly amazing for me to reflect that the pre-Civil Rights Movement country Mavis describes still existed in my lifetime and however old you are, if it wasn’t in your lifetime it wasn’t long before. The term institutionalized racism has been used in this country, but of course in the US it was the real McCoy. It must have seemed permanent, totally intractable to every black person for a very long time, but the fact is some of them got up and fought it and they won. Mavis’s record tells you something about what they faced, how they fought, who they were, what they did. It reminds us of the genuinely good intentions of those involved, of the almost unbelievable levels of dignity and purity of purpose of these people, and what they were contending with.

We in this country can’t be anything other than observers of all this, really. Whoever we are, it was someone else’s fight, in someone else’s world. But we can feel Mavis’s feeling. A fight doesn’t have to be your fight to affect you deeply. You don’t have to have lived something to be deeply affected by it. You can’t be affected by it as deeply or in the same way as the people directly involved and affected, but you can be intensely moved by it. And this is an intensely moving record. If you can listen to it and not feel something happening to you as you do, well, there may well be a piece of you missing.

As Mavis makes clear here, the fight goes on. A big victory was won, but the struggle isn’t over. And this record is in part Mavis’s powerful contribution to that struggle. Maybe, one day, if kids at school still ‘do’ Black History Month or whatever, some of them will do Mavis. They should.

Because when the roll is called, Mavis will most definitely be on it.

Photo by Paul Natkin