Mavis Staples – Soul folk in action
You know, down in Mississippi where we came from…we’d have a good old revival meeting…the old people’d be singing the familiar hymns…And some old sister way over in the Amen Corner would begin to moan. I didn’t understand that language! And I asked my parents when I got home, I said, What does she mean by moaning…Old man says, ‘Son, when you moan, even the Devil don’t know what you talking about.’
— Roebuck “Pops” Staples
At Memphis’ Orpheum Theater in July, Mavis Staples found herself surrounded by nearly 200 dancing children. Though several dozen of these kids were for some reason twirling umbrellas, Staples wasn’t performing “Singing In The Rain”. Rather, she was singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, a song she has known nearly her entire life and has recorded five times throughout a career that spans half a century.
Mavis had been invited to Memphis to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Stax Music Academy, an urban, youth-based community program associated with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Consequently, the audience was packed with family members craning their necks to spot a specific son or daughter or grandchild in the program. That is, until the featured guest stepped from the wings. It’s typical of the respect she commands as an artist that as soon as she took the stage, and despite real efforts on her part to keep the focus on the kids, all eyes were on Mavis Staples.
She’s only five feet tall, but her voice is giant — so husky, jagged, and instantly recognizable that when Prince produced an album for Staples in 1993, he titled it simply The Voice. At the Orpheum, The Voice shouted and groaned as chants of “May-vis!” and “Preach it!” sprang up around the hall. Her hand on the back of her hip, bent forward at the waist, her face a twisted grimace, she sang again that familiar song about following her mother’s body to the cemetery: “Tried to hold up and be brave,” Staples testified, “but I could not, hold my saawww-roh! Lord! When they laid her! Her! In the grave…”
“There’s a better home a-waiting! In the sky, Lord! Oh my! In the sky!”
Then Mavis let out a long, slow, excruciating moan. This multi-syllabic moan was filled with so much suffering that it was a truly hideous thing to hear. But as she stretched her moan out, her voice somehow became beautiful, too, without losing any of the previous horror. And her grimace progressed into a bright, wide smile. She sang again: “There’s a better home a-waiting.”
The week before her Orpheum show, Mavis was at home in Chicago, where she discussed her own losses during a lengthy phone conversation. It was just a day before her 65th birthday; she was in a mood to look back at her life, and to mourn the absence of those no longer by her side. Mavis’ mother, Osceloa Staples, died in 1987; her father, Roebuck Staples, died in 2000; her youngest sister, Cynthia, died not long after that.
But Staples was in a mood to celebrate too. “I’m trying to lose some weight — I’m too short to be chubby — but I’m gonna have to have me some champagne tomorrow!” She was also eagerly, if a bit nervously, anticipating her slated performance of “America The Beautiful” at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Most of all, she was excited about Have A Little Faith, her first solo album in almost a decade, released August 31 on Alligator Records.
“Really, this album is the one I think of as my first solo album,” she said. “The other albums I’ve done were always just me trying my wings, but I never had any thoughts of leaving the family. But now, it’s a must that Mavis goes solo. I’m on my own.”
Mavis Staples was born in Chicago, and became world famous with music recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Her story really begins, however, in Mississippi. As a young man, Mavis’ father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, worked, as she recounts in her new song “Pop’s Recipe”, in the fields of Mississippi, “picking cotton on Dockery Plantation at ten cents a day.” Cotton picking was grueling, Sisyphean toil — row after row, field after field, year after year. But the one priceless benefit to accrue to Staples for his production of another man’s profit was exposure to two other men employed at the plantation: bluesmen Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) and, especially, Charlie Patton, who inspired Pops to learn guitar.
Years later, when Mavis was a young woman, Pops took his children on a tour of the old home place, that stretch of the Delta in which he and their mother had grown up, met and married, and had their first two children, Cleotha and brother Pervis. “Pops showed us where he was born [Winona, Mississippi, in 1915] and where he courted momma and where he proposed,” Mavis recalls today. “He pointed out where he bought his first guitar — it was a hardware store — and he showed us the cemetery with his grandparents’ headstones. He showed us where he used to pick cotton. Mm, mm, mm.” Her voice trails off.
“And he showed where they burned down the house!” she says, suddenly laughing. “Momma and daddy were out in the field picking cotton and they saw the smoke. They threw down their bags and ran to the house and there was Clethie and Pervis cooking mud pies! In the house! It was just a small wooden house, didn’t take long to burn down.”
Their house destroyed, and the Great Depression leaving even fewer opportunities than normal for black Mississippians, the Staples decided in 1937 to head north to Chicago. Several of Roebuck’s six brothers and seven sisters had already made the trip, joining in a great migration that before the close of World War II would number in the millions.