The voice of the legendary Mavis Staples is sounding more soulful than ever on her raw new album, We Get By. And on the opening track, written and produced by Ben Harper, Ms Staples pleads simply and repeatedly for the violence and intolerance of our age to end. "Bullets flying, mothers crying," she sings in this concise three minute blues, accompanied by a growling guitar riff. "We gotta change around here".
She may have become an octogenarian in July this year, but Mavis Staples is certainly not trading on her past glories with The Staple Singers. After working with such varied musical luminaries as Nick Cave, tUnE-yArds, Wilko frontman Jeff Tweedy, Bon Iver, M Ward, Gorillaz and Arcade Fire, Staples's recorded output has never been so varied nor so prolific and she continues to perform live, with recent appearances including the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York and Glastonbury Festival, prior to touring the USA from September through to February.
"I’m the messenger," is the welcoming quote on her website. "That’s my job - it has been for my whole life - and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day."
The poignant sleeve artwork for We Get By is a 1956 photograph by African-American artist and photo journalist Gordon Parks called Outside Looking In. Parks spent a lifetime capturing images of the social and economic impact of racism in America and the photo was part of a series of shots for Life Magazine taken in Mobile, Alabama. The image shows six young black children standing in the undergrowth, pressed up against a chain link fence, behind which they can see a fabulous children's playground solely inhabited by white children and their parents.
"That photograph hit me like a ton of bricks," staples told NPR's Michel Martin in May 2019. "They had sent me about nine pictures, you know, trying to find something for the album. I didn't see the others. That was the only one I saw, and it grabbed me. You know, these little babies standing on the outside. They want to swing. They want to go on the slide."
"And it kind of reminded me of my sisters and I," she went on. "We had that problem when we were growing up. We couldn't go to the beach. We couldn't go to the park. We wanted some grass. Where we lived, we didn't really have any grass. You know, we'd have to play in a vacant lot with dirt and glass. So that photograph grabbed me in the heart and almost brought me to tears. I said, this is the one."
Undoubtedly progress has been made since 1956. But it is not nearly enough. Hence a singer who lived through - and helped provide the soundtrack to - the civil rights movement is still calling for change.
"Things were rolling our way for so long that I thought I’d be able to sing about pretty trees in the springtime by the time I reached the end of my eighth decade," she told The Telegraph's Helen Brown prior to her Glastonbury show. "Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. When that man - I will not say his name - got into the White House, I knew I needed to keep on being a protest singer."
"People say I’m political," she says at the conclusion of her Telegraph interview. "Well, yeah, if you say so. Even being a black woman on a stage is a political act."
Learn more about Mavis Staples here:
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
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