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Mavis Staples Returns to Her Roots
Forty-two years after she participated in the watershed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, Mavis Staples came to Los Angeles, where she was honored by the NAACP and given their Image Award. Mavis is the last active member of the groundbreaking gospel group the Staple Singers. When they knelt down to pray, thats when the police started beating them, and the dogs and the hoses. It was somethin, said Staples, recalling the assault the Selma police mounted against activists. Mavis has returned to those roots and the fiery songs of confrontation and solidarity with her new CD, Well Never Turn Back.
Most of the songs on the album date back to the days of civil rights demonstrations and lunch counter sit-ins. For many Americans it was barely a generation ago when For Whites Only was the law of the land in many parts of the country. The Staple Singers were at the forefront of the civil rights movement and the roots of these songs come from deep within the African American experience.
Mavis Staples is one of the great voices in black culture, both as a singer and as an activist. With Well Never Turn Back Staples comes up with an outstanding album that deserves to be heard over and over. Blues and gospel aficionados will not be disappointed. This is an album that showcases Stapless smoky voice and sets the tone of a determined peoples struggle.
The albums sound is beautifully arranged and crafted by producer Ry Cooder who uses many of the musicians he worked with on his recent My Name Is Buddy CD, including drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Mike Elizondo.
Down in Mississippi opens the album. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the back-up choir whose vocals open the song with a deep gospel refrain. Staples breaks away from the traditional lyrics that describe the grisly results of searching a river for slain civil rights workers to talk about her grandmother and growing up during segregation.
Eyes on the Prize begins with a funky slide intro and drumbeat that only someone like Keltner could come up with. In This Little Light of Mine Staples wraps her voice around the song and never lets go. The effect is like a gospel meeting in a juke-joint somewhere in the Delta.
99 and ½ was covered by Wilson Pickett, but once again the combination of Cooders arrangement with Stapless vocals and rap come up with a hybrid that defines the material as its own. Mavis and Ladysmith offer a rendition of We Shall Not Be Moved that is about as soulful as it comes.
Closing out the album is Jesus on the Mainline. Staples and Cooder open the song with a revival-type intro. The Freedom Singers contribute back-up vocals on this song and six others. The result is sheer beauty. Nothing short of Sam Cookes A Change is Gonna Come ever sounded as soulful and religious at the same time.
The Freedom Singers include Rutha Harris, Charlie Neblett, and Bettie-Mae Fikes. The vocal group was an outgrowth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These people, to them its still going on, says Cooder. When we stand there in the room and sing, they mean every word, its never changed for them.
It is this immediacy that Staples was looking for in the materials delivery. My hopes are that this generation today would hear the songs and move with them, says Staples. We need folk like us who were there and are still here. We can witness . We need to educate this generation. They need to know what it was like and what we went through for them to be able to vote today. Hopefully these songs will be heard.
Staples was 19 and the lead voice in the Staple Singers when they recorded Uncloudy Day. The group included her sister Cleotha, father Pops, and brother Pervis. Pervis was later replaced by sister, Yvonne. Mavis had planned to go to college and become a nurse, but opted for singing instead. Staples and her family would log some 100,000 miles a year touring throughout the country in those days. Initially a gospel group, they were later embraced by the folk movement, and finally by rockers. They sang The Weight with the Band at the Last Waltz concert and performed at the famed 1972 Watts Festival. The group remained active until Popss death in 2000. Pervis and Cleotha retired from the road, but Yvonne still travels with her sister, performing duties as road manager and singing back-up.
Mavis has traveled the road less taken when it comes to her art. She has stuck to her roots and been true to herself. In troubled times like these Mavis Stapless freedom songs provide a counterpoint to the countrys rise in militarism and curtailment of civil rights. The songs remind us that nothing worth having comes without a struggle. Stapless singing on Well Never Turn Back makes it a bit easier to keep your eyes on the prize.
John Zavesky is a freelance writer covering the arts and popular culture.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.