May 23, 2024

Mavis Staples – “If All I Was Was Black” is an important album for today

ANTI RECORDS                     17 November 2017

Do you need all the back story, as is traditional with venerable musicians? Let’s keep it short: Mavis Staples has many years behind her as a powerful soul singer. In recent years, her career has been revitalised by partnership with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. She brings the voice – not what it was in power but with the strength and expression learnt over decades – and he brings the arrangements, production and, importantly for this one, the songs. You know how good the guitar work is with Wilco, here it bolsters these collaborations.

The result is a warm but determined and angry album. In fact, I think this is the best batch yet. A bluesy soul, the music underpins songs of resistance. Tweedy’s songs are clearly felt by Mavis – you hear it in her voice (and she co-wrote a few). There’s no doubt that Staples is fed up with the state of race in America. She’s lived through the civil rights fights of the fifties, sixties and seventies; you’d have thought things would be right by now but here she is, at seventy-eight, with young black boys and men being shot down by the police and a president who sees a moral equivalence between peaceful anti-racist protesters and Nazi murderers. No-one could have imagined this shit would still be going on.

So there’s a set of songs, some gentle songs of friendship, some expressions of strength and some calling out those in power. She laments that some only see her as black, not for her qualities as a human. A gospel-ly number recalls Martin Luther King’s peaceful dream. “They lie and show no shame”, she sings, bringing to mind Mr Trump’s alternative facts. “Bullets and flying, people are dying” she sings over a stompy blues. But they both want to build a bridge and are inspired by the Obama years, quoting Michelle Obama: “We go high when they go low” – a call to be morally better than your enemies. The Black Lives Matter movement get a mention: “When I think my life matters, you can say yours does too. But I bet you never have to remind them to look at it from your point of view.”

With solid soul/gospel/blues, great guitar licks, an amazing voice and inspiring songs from right now, this is an uplifting album.

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