Recording artists who eschew real-world events from their lyrics do so for several reasons. Some say their job is to entertain, not educate. Others fear alienating mainstream listeners or sounding dated.
And then there are those who prefer to sing what's in their minds and hearts. "If you want to write a song for the Staples, read the headlines," said Roebuck "Pops" Staples, The Staple Singers' patriarch and guitarist. Releasing political calls to action during the Civil Rights Movement proved transcendent. The Staple Singers performed as a quartet for a half century, until they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
After meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, Pops told his children and bandmates, "If he can preach it, we can sing it." While safety concerns kept certain musicians from touring the strife-torn South, the Chicago-based Staple Singers joined King at rallies, sit-ins and non-violent protests, harmonizing history in progress with songs like "Freedom Highway."
The theme of traveling to a better place was never far from the mind of Pops Staples. At age 20, he took a job in a Midwestern slaughterhouse to relocate his young family from whatever fate lay ahead for them in his home state of Mississippi. His father had been a sharecropper and his grandfather a slave.
NPR host and Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot borrows the title of the Staple Singers' biggest hit for his newest biography, I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's Highway (Scribner, $26, watch a performance of the song here). Kot's heroine is the youngest member of the group, Mavis, who unknowingly entered the entertainment industry when she was eight years old. Her baritone voice, unearthly and unschooled, was able to induce tears from her very first audience of Baptist parishioners.
The permanent Staple Singers were Mavis, Pops (who died in 2000), and Cleotha (who died in 2013). Brother Pervis and another sister, Yvonne, took tenures rounding out the foursome. Besides being their spiritual leader and salary negotiator, Pops had the second-best vocals after Mavis. Their message was threefold: 1) God is present. 2) Seek justice through kindness. 3) The time for change is now.
Although they label-hopped and genre-hopped throughout the decades -- receiving some criticism for allegedly abandoning gospel for "the devil's music," the blues -- the band's choruses remain universal in our faux "post-racial" world. During Nelson Mandela's imprisonment, the Staples sang in Apartheid-era South Africa. "I'll Take You There" played from speakers at campaign stops during Barack Obama's first presidential campaign (however, as Mavis told The Washington Post, she was disappointed that she was not invited to sing at Obama's first inauguration).
Mavis has since performed for Obama, and at age 74, she is arguably cooler than she's ever been (but not cooler than she could have been -- she rejected Bob Dylan's marriage proposal). She participated in the Lollapalooza music festival, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity," and Kanye West's vivid performance of "Jesus Walks" at the 2005 Grammy Awards. Just three years ago, she won her first-ever Grammy for You Are Not Alone, a solo record produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, and she's performing on the 2014 telecast; she is again a nominee for a Tweedy collaboration (Kot is also the author of Wilco: Learning How to Die, Broadway Books, 2004).
"I'm still on that highway," she told Kot. Their shared hometown of Chicago is statistically the most segregated city in America. "And I will be there until Dr. Martin Luther King's dream has been realized."
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
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