Mavis Staples is living, singing history. Her family’s musical group, The Staple Singers, which also included her father, Pops, and two sisters, is often credited with providing the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement. After her family attended a service by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, they began to write what became an enduring catalog of protest songs rooted in gospel tradition, from “Freedom Highway” to “I’ll Take You There.”
It’s now 50 years after the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but Mavis remembers it all like it was yesterday. Before she performs tonight at an event in Montgomery commemorating the march to freedom across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we talked with her about what it was like to be a part of the movement then and now and about her latest project, a full-length album of Pops Staples songs co-released with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
SL: Alabama runs deep in the history of the your family from you meeting Dr. King in Birmingham to your recordings in Muscle Shoals. Could you talk about what it’s like for you returning to Alabama for the 50th Anniversary of the marches in Selma?
MS: You know it’s really amazing to be back in Montgomery. It looks so different. So much is built up. But, you get a feeling. It takes your mind back to the way it was, and you’re just grateful that things are better. We still got a lot of work to do, but it’s a good feeling to be here 50 years later. I’ve seen a lot of my friends in the hotel lobby and we’re all still here, and we can keep carrying on.
After your father and sisters went to see Dr. King speak at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, your father told you, “If he can preach it, we can sing it.” What was it like for your group to pick up that torch and carry it during that time?
Our father was our leader and whatever he said ruled with us. When Pops said, ‘I really like this man, I like his message,’ we just got started writing freedom songs. The first was “Freedom Highway.” We were young and Pops was the boss, but we felt good about it because we had met Dr. King too. We had been in the South, and we had seen how it was. So, it was a good thing for us. [Singing protest songs] wasn’t anything we would say nay to because we had been in Mississippi, and we had been mistreated and didn’t like it so we said let’s do this if it’s going to help the cause. So that’s what we did, and we joined the movement. We started singing protest songs, and we’re still doing it today.
Was there a certain moment in your life where you realized that what you were singing was having an impact on the movement?
I felt that our songs were doing good for the movement. People like Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Young, people who were working with the movement, the big chiefs we called them, would tell us your songs are doing good and your songs are benefiting the movement. One of our songs turned out to be Dr. King’s favorite: “Why Am I Treated So Bad.” I felt that we were doing good because of the audience that would come to our concerts and they would applaud us and amen us. That was all we needed to keep going.
But, if people had come to us and said you shouldn’t be doing this, we would have kept on doing it anyway. You know the church thought we had split over to R&B because our record I’ll Take You There crossed over on its own and it surprised us. But they started saying we were singing the devil’s music, and I said you got to listen to our lyrics. [Sings] “I know a place ain’t nobody crying. Ain’t nobody worried. Ain’t no smiling faces lying to the races.” Now where else do you think we would be taking you than heaven? They started hearing it, and we were invited back to church. The first song that was requested was “I’ll Take You There.”
A remastered recording of your performance at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church was released a couple of days ago. Why do you think “Freedom Highway” is one of your family’s most powerful songs?
That record was recorded right when it had just been written. It’s saying everything that needs to be said in that song. [Sings] ‘March up freedom’s highway. Made up my mind, and I won’t turn around. There is just one thing I can’t understand my friend, why some people think freedom was not designed for all men. There are so many people living their life perplexed, wondering in their minds what’s going to happen next, and that’s why we’re gonna march up freedom’s highway.’
We’ve talked a bit about your dad. I’m a really big fan of Don’t Lose This, which is an album of songs you and your sisters recorded with him in 1999. What was it like finishing that album with Jeff Tweedy and releasing it after all these years?
Oh man, it was a relief. It was a relief to me that Jeff said, “I’ll do this for you Mavis.” I had held the tape for 15 years and my father had asked me not to lose it. That was his last request of me, and I was so happy to finally say, “Pops, I’m going to fulfill your request of me.” With Tweedy helping, I knew it wouldn’t be lost. I was happy. I knew Tweedy couldn’t turn me down anyhow. We’re like family. I told him, ‘With you and Spencer [Tweedy’s son who plays drums on the record] playing together, we’re all like one big happy family.
How do you think your latest albums You Are Not Alone and One True Vine, which you worked on with Jeff, complement your whole catalog? It seems like a natural progression.
Tweedy knows me well enough to know what’s good for me. He writes around me. I watched him write You Are Not Alone. He told me he used to work in a record shop, and he had access to all the Staples Singers music from the ’50s and ’60s. Before I recorded with him, I had to have a meeting with him when he asked to produce me because I didn’t know him then, and it went well. He talked about Pops, but the main thing he talked about was his family, and I was like this is it, that’s all the kid has to say. Because Pops instilled in us that family is the strongest union in the world. Stick with your brothers and sisters, and can’t nobody harm you and can’t nothing break you.
Jeff Tweedy is a genius. I just thank the Lord. He’s just sent me a bunch of geniuses, Ry Cooder, [Bob] Dylan, Prince, and now Tweedy. All these guys are top-notch poets. When I get a song that I can live, that’s all I need, and that’s what they give me. Pops said if you sing with your heart, you’ll reach the hearts of the people. So that’s what I do every time I walk on stage. I’m really blessed.
A documentary on Mavis Staples’ life will debut at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, TX on March 15th. You can also see her perform in Savannah, GA on March 19th and in Jacksonville, FL on March 21st.