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CD: Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black

CD: Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black

At 78, the queen of R&B marches on

Mavis Staples: keeping the faith

The queen of R&B is no stranger to struggle – the Staples Singers, led by Pops, played a key role in the 1960s civil rights movement, emerging from the gospel circuit as so many great black singers did. Mavis’ first paid gig was with her family in in 1948. Almost 70 years later, she’s often to be found on the road with Bob Dylan, who was sweet on her back in the early 1960s when they sang often from the same stage. Where once she marched with Martin Luther King, today she puts her energies into Black Lives Matter.

The Civil Rights Act was passed into US law more than half a century ago yet there are moments when it feels nothing has changed, as song after song on If All I Was Was Black testifies. “People are dyin’/Bullets are flyin’/No time for tears/We’ve got work to do,” Staples sings on “No Time for Crying”, a track – like the other nine on the album – written by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. It is their third collaboration, and in addition to producing the album he contributes guitar, bass, percussion and vocals.

Staples has always been regarded as the sunniest of personalities, even in the darkest times, and the new album is far from bleak though it is serious, made to sound more so perhaps because her vocal register is now much lower. Where you might expect anger you hear disappointment and empathy, a call once more to non-violent action: “Little bit from me/And a little bit from me…/We set each other free”. Her enduring faith leads her to believe that we shall indeed overcome.

The album contains no roll-call of black brothers and sisters lost on America’s mean streets. The songs are universal rather than specific, a call to action though not a call to the barricades. “We go high/When they go low… Gonna stand side by side/Our hearts in command/Love as our guide” she sings in “We Go High”, a clear reference to Michelle Obama’s DNC speech.

“All Over Again”, which closes If All I Was, is quiet, understated, dignified and perfect: “I’d dream the same dreams/I do the same things/My friend, I do it all over again,” Staples sings, over a wonderful bluesy acoustic guitar.

Amen, Mavis, amen.

Liz Thomson's website

Staples' enduring faith leads her to believe that we shall indeed overcome

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