Mavis Staples and the Grandness of Musical History

Friday, February 18, 2011 - 5:39 am

Mavis Staples and the Grandness of Musical History

Who doesn’t love the remarkable and enduring Mavis Staples? And teaming up with Jeff Tweedy? Well, the Grammy voters couldn’t resist her charm either, awarding her Best Americana Album for her latest work, You Are Not Alone. Which is a perfect opportunity to share these two videos of her and Wilco front man Tweedy performing acoustic versions of both songs he composed for the album: the title track “You Are Not Alone” (above) and “Only the Lord Knows” (below).
Mavis Staples' "You Are Not Alone"Her win also gives us a chance to remember her family’s legacy in the American civil rights movement. As Dr. Vincent Harding reminds us in an upcoming show, artists like The Staples Singers (“Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”) and Curtis Mayfield created a soundtrack of hope for the movement. In the liner notes of Mavis Staples’ 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back, she wrote this personal letter reminding us of this history and the need for positive change going forward:

“When we started our family group, The Staple Singers, we started out mostly singing in churches in the South. Pops saw Dr. Martin Luther King speak in 1963 and from there we started to broaden our musical vision beyond just gospel songs. Pops told us, “I like this man. I like his message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it.” So we started to write “freedom songs,” like “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” “When Will We Be Paid for the Work We’ve Done,” “Long Walk to DC,” and many others. Like many in the civil rights movement, we drew on the spirituality and the strength from the church to help gain social justice and to try to achieve equal rights.

We became a major voice for the civil rights movement and hopefully helped to make a difference in this country. It was a difficult and dangerous time (in 1965 we spent a night in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas and I wondered if we’d ever make it out alive) but we felt we needed to stand up and be heard.

So for us, and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes. And that seems to be missing today. Here it is, 2007, and there are still so many problems and social injustices in the world. Well, I tell you ¬ we need a change now more than ever, and I’m turning to the church again for strength.

With this record, I hope to get across the same feeling, the same spirit and the same message as we did with the Staple Singers — and to hopefully continue to make positive changes. We’ve got to keep pushing to make the world a better place. Things are better but we’re not where we need to be and we’ll never turn back. 99 and 1/2 just won’t do!”

A good way to kick off your Friday.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as publisher & editor-in-chief. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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