Mavis Staples; From the Land of Emmett Till

Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples has a new CD. The Drew, Miss. (now living in Chicago) throaty singer’s latest CD, “We’ll Never Turn Back,”

….takes “freedom songs” from the days she spent in the thick of the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s and delivers them with a flinty edge guaranteed to jar anyone who thinks they know these pieces well. Classic betterment songs like “Eyes on the Prize,” “On My Way” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” might easily have sounded pale and antique today. But as produced by Ry Cooder, they have the kick and spontaneity of punk-soul. Staples and Cooder chiseled a brutal sound, using just a four-piece, rock-edged band to back Mavis’ guttural wonder of a voice.

Staples – best known for the early-’70s pop hits like “I’ll Take You There,” recorded with her family group the Staples Singers – says the way she and Cooder worked ensured the music’s verve. “We didn’t have any rehearsals,” the 66-year-old explains. “I never knew what I was going to do in the studio until the day of the recording. Then we would go in. Ry would start playing guitar, and I would start singing.”

(from The New York Daily News, 4/22/2007)
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Welcome to the civil rights music blog — and what a way to start! With the music of Mavis Staples.

I’m a writer and learned about Staples when working on a book about civil rights in the Mississippi Delta—the northwest portion of Mississippi, wedged between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, with some of the most fertile soil on the planet.

Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited,” is the story of the Delta and how the region brought great wealth to white planters and industrialists who built their Southern society on the exploitation and impoverishment of African Americans.

But the Delta is also the home of a rich Blues tradition, running from Charlie Patton on through Pops Staples who originated the Staples Family Singers.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples had learned to play guitar from Charlie Patton in the late 1920s. I learned this from blues historian Marvin Flemmons who still lives in Drew where he once owned a blues record store.

Flemmons says that in the 1930s, Staples moved away from Drew to Chicago and with his children formed The Staple Singers, an internationally known gospel group. Blues lovers in Drew later hosted a Pop Staples Festival annually until funding was no longer available. Flemmons, however, would like to see the tradition return and keeps contact with Mavis Staples.

Flemmons, in collecting history about early Delta musicians,learned from Staples that musicians were plentiful in Drew, all learning from each other.

“Some of [them] had as much talent as those doing recordings. They chose not to leave for a recording career but were content to entertain at the house parties and small juke houses.”

The best house party Flemmons said he ever attended took place one summer during the Staples festival when “so much hail fell down we had to move the festival into a house. Each musician and his band took different rooms to play their music.”

Flemmons has created a list of many blues players of the Drew tradition that numbers “nearly thirty but is not complete.” His information comes from “front porch interviews conducted with blues researcher and the author of a biography on Howlin’ Wolf, James Segrest of Notasulga, Alabama. Often these interviews included a front porch concert.”

Flemmons list includes:

Mott Willis, who moved to Drew in 1919 from Crystal Springs and “played many instruments in Henry Bailey’s Minstrel Show at the age of eighteen or nineteen.”

Tommy Johnson, also from Crystal Springs, who lived in Boyle around 1915 and then moved to Drew with his brother LeDell in 1921. “They lived on the plantation belonging to Tom Sanders, also from Crystal Springs. Johnson was a major Mississippi blues singer for more than thirty years.”

(From “Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited.”)

Please post your comments and stories. Thanks, Susan

I’ll be returning to the Delta in May to do some research and work on a documentary. While there, I’ll blog and put up photos.