Mavis Staples recalls crossing into Arkansas around 1:00 am in November 1964 when West Memphis police pulled over her family's Cadillac, ordering them out of the car with shotguns and dogs. Before things had gone badly wrong, she had been driving for some two hundred miles when they stopped for gas, with Pops and sister Cleotha along for the ride, and her brother Pervis asleep under the family's coats in the back seat.
At the station, she asked the attendant to clean the windshield and recalls him doing it but responding with a slur when she asked for a receipt for the gas. He said if she wanted a receipt, she would have to come back to the office for it. Pops headed to the office in her place, only to be insulted with the same slur. Grabbing the slip from the attendant's hand, Pops clocked the man, who fled into his office. As he returned, Mavis saw a crowbar in his hand.
Meanwhile, Cleotha woke up Pervis in the backseat. The family managed to free Pops and escape in the car but realized they were in serious trouble. Pops told Mavis to head for the state line, but police caught up as they crossed from Tennessee to Arkansas. In the trunk, officers found a gun and a cigar box holding more than $1000 cash in receipts from the family's latest performance.
The attendant had called in a story about them beating and robbing him, and everything in the trunk looked like evidence. Pops was put in one squad car, Cleotha in another, and Mavis was handcuffed to her brother in a third. At that time, Mavis says, "black people could just be killed." She remembers that as they were driven off into the night, "I thought they were going to lynch us."
This history is still with us. At the beginning of her eighth decade of singing truth, Mavis Staples has delivered If All I Was Was Black (ANTI- Records), ten songs about America today, where the present is filled with ghosts of the past. "Nothing has changed," Mavis said in early August, just days before the world watched neo-Nazis march with swastika flags in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a young woman was murdered. "We are still in it."
If All I Was Was Black represents Mavis' third collaboration with songwriter and producer (and Wilco frontman) Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis' legendary voice and a nation she's uniquely poised to address.
In the wake of the race-baiting and rhetoric of exclusion appearing not just on the streets in 2017 but issuing from statehouses and even the White House, Mavis and Tweedy found themselves in sync and wanting to say something about the fissures dividing the country. "We're not loving one another the way we should," Mavis confided, as if sharing the secret to happiness, or something better. "Some people are saying they want to make the world great again, but we never lost our greatness. We just strayed into division."
Explaining why he decided to tackle the state of the union, Tweedy said, "I've always thought of art as a political statement in and of itself—that it was enough to be on the side of creation and not destruction. But there is something that feels complicit at this moment in time about not facing what is happening in this country head on."
Emerging from this pairing is an interracial, multi-generational collaboration. If we've fallen short of our brightest promises, this record stands to remind us what we're still capable of. The partnership itself is part of the point.
The album opens with another position statement ("This life surrounds you, guns are loaded") and runs immediately down a "long, narrow road" where any misstep can be deadly. Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly and the Family Stone's mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section.
After years of working with Mavis, Tweedy tried to imagine the words that she would want to sing, and also wrote music with the sound of her band in mind. The first track, "Little Bit" swells into a cautionary anthem of all the ways in which those regarded as suspicious have to weigh their actions just to survive day to day: "A little bit too high, a little bit too low, a little bit out of line, and my baby won't make it home." The joyous groove of the title track then tackles the same issue by directly addressing those who respond to someone's race without seeing their shared humanity. "If all I was was black, don't you want to know me more than that?"
Current events appear on the record, but only obliquely. "We Go High" borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama's speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. "Build a Bridge" parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it. But across 35 minutes of music, there is not a single proper name to bind any song to a specific place or individual.
Asked why he didn't come up with narrative songs tackling specific recent moments of violence or injustice, Tweedy explained that when he first wrote "Little Bit," it had included a roll call of the dead. And there is no shortage of names from which he could have chosen: 12-year-old Tamir Rice shot on a playground. Eric Garner, who suffocated in a police chokehold on the ground. Sandra Bland, who died three days into custody after a routine traffic stop. Walter Scott, shot in the back running away from an officer in South Carolina.
Mavis' hometown of Chicago agonized over the death of Laquan McDonald, as a video emerged establishing that contrary to official reports, he had been shot sixteen times while walking away then lying on the ground. Yet one misgiving Tweedy felt about putting the names of the dead in songs for Mavis was that so many have died under unbearable circumstances, it would be impossible to include everyone. He worried he would be doing an injustice to the memory of those left out.
Instead, the songs take a universal approach. "We didn't make the songs point to a specific person," Mavis explained. "If you follow the lyrics it's about yesterday and today."
The lyrics are still occasionally shot through with anger. "I have a mind to bury them whole, when they go low," Mavis sings on "We Go High." "There's evil in the world, and there's evil in me" opens the first verse of "Try Harder." "Oh, they lie, and they show no shame" adds a harsh undercurrent to "Who Told You That," an anthem against accepting the status quo. Unsettling musical elements wind their way through the record, too, from the abrasive guitar distortion of "Try Harder" to a descending bassline that signals danger on "Little Bit."
Despite all this, the mood ring on Mavis' 2017 outing is set to love, which runs through and over both fury and despair. The songs move less like a hammer and more like the tide, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. She is singing the world as it is, but also a way forward.
In the end, Mavis is sure that the answer is to lift each other up. She's not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but the possibilities of love. "It's the compassion that I feel," she said. "I want you to feel that same compassion."
Talking about writing for Mavis, Tweedy said, "The love I have for Mavis and the desire to be part of some kind of positive change are a big part of this album for me."
If All I Was Was Black contains elements of many styles that Mavis has performed in her lifetime, tying them together with the closing number declaring that she would "Do It All Over Again." Handclaps on "Peaceful Dream" recall the Staple Singers' legendary use of the same percussive technique. "Ain't No Doubt About It," a duet between Mavis and Tweedy, underlines the fluidity between the gospel, soul, rock, and country genres of the Americana roots music in which both artists have innovated and built careers.
Mavis sang with family for her first paying gig at Holy Trinity Baptist Church in 1948, moving over time from the gospel circuit to radio and eventually even to stadium shows, collecting a number one hit along the way and adding almost every musical form to her repertoire. She has performed with Bob Dylan, Booker T., Ray Charles, and The Band, among many others, and has had music written for her by everyone from Prince and Nick Cave to Neko Case.
At the age of fourteen, Mavis made a trip into the studio with the Staple Singers in September 1953 to record for United Records. Two years later, a boy who had himself just turned fourteen was found dead in the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till, like Mavis, was from Chicago, and they brought his body home to bury him. "I grew up with all this," Mavis says.
For the funeral, Emmett's mother kept the casket open, so that everyone could see the brutality of the men who murdered her son and the system that would let them get away with it. Mavis met Till's mother after his death, and notes that more than fifty years passed before the woman whose honor had been the justification for murder admitted to a historian that she fabricated her testimony about Till making advances toward her.
Nearly a decade after Till's funeral, the Civil Rights era hit full stride, and the Staple Singers threw in with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of America, even though some churchgoers felt that God's holiest work might be done in some less political realm. Mavis and her family had built a vast audience around the country, one they visited by driving show to show in their car—the same Cadillac that was stopped leaving Memphis late in 1964.
Arriving in handcuffs at the West Memphis police station that night, they were recognized by the police chief and the custodian. Producing the receipt showing they had paid for gas, they instantly obliterated the station attendant's false accusation of robbery. The chief and his men released the Staples family, and even made a point of coming to one of their shows soon after.
Without their celebrity, however—and without that receipt—what would have happened? If All I Was Was Black doesn't turn away from that part of America, the part in which black Americans can be shot by the side of the road. But it embraces the idea that the country can redeem itself, that we can, one by one, each rise above our worst selves.
And Mavis thinks she has an idea how to do it. "Bring us all together as a people—that's what I hope to do. You can't stop me. You can't break me. I'm too loving," she says. "These songs are going to change the world."
Written by Andrea Pitzer