Passion and politics with Mavis Staples

Republished from MOVE Magazine

Throughout her heralded, Grammy-winning, 61-year career as a gospel/blues singer, Mavis Staples has been around the block. But one block she hadn’t yet managed to visit was Columbia.

“This is our very first time to be here,” she said. “What took you so long?”

Staples got her first taste of Columbia when she got the Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ festival started Friday evening. The Staples Singers started their set with an a cappella gospel number backed only by clapping. By the time the band jumped in for the second tune, Peace Park was saturated with fans ready to witness Staples’s promise of “joy, happiness, inspiration (and) positive vibrations.”

Staples seemed to fire up every soulful atom in her body when summoning her gravelly voice, which, while weathered, appears to still have the full arsenal intact.

Once dropping the opening line, “I pulled into Nazareth,” from The Band’s “The Weight,” Staples had the crowd at her disposal. At times she would wear the hat of musical preacher, exchanging enthusiastic call-and-responses with the sprightly crowd.

An especially noteworthy performance was the title song off 2010’s You Are Not Alone, written and produced by Missouri’s “homeboy” (as Staples put it) Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album this year.

The music was often a vehicle for Staples to preach the power of overcoming adversity. Most notably, the poignant “Freedom Highway,” a song written for a 1962 civil rights march, gave the few youngsters scattered throughout the crowd a rare chance to see MLK era passion.

Staples also slipped in a little present day politicking, especially on those currently opposing President Obama.

“They’re mixing up the Kool-Aid and passing it off as ‘tea,’” she sang with a sly grin. “‘We wanna take our country back.’ Back to where? The ’50s and ’60s? That doesn’t sound like progress to me.”

Staples’s father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, founded the Staples Singers in 1948, and Mavis joined the group in 1950 at the age of 11. Even at 72, Staples has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

“We ain’t tired yet,” she said. “Y’all ain’t seen the last of me.”



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