Mavis Staples and the Struggle

Mavis Staples is a national treasure. An icon, not only in soul and R&B as part of the Staple Singers, but in our history as an integral figure in the Civil Rights movement. I don’t want to get into the particulars of the history of the Staple Singers or Mavis’ role in the fight for equality (both have been discussed thoroughly elsewhere), but they’re essential things to acknowledge when telling the following story.

My wife and I had second row seats for Mavis Staples’ recent concert at Proctors in Schenectady, NY. I ordered them months in advance and could not wait. I vaguely knew “I’ll Take You There” for years, but it wasn’t until I purchased a Stax Records compilation (because it had Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft,” and Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” and I rightly figured the rest of the compilation must be incredible) nearly a decade ago that really turned me onto her music. Now I’m a fan, from the Staple Singers material to her recent resurgence on her Jeff Tweedy-produced albums.

It’s hard not to feel moved when you hear Mavis sing “Come Go With Me,” her opener at Proctors. It’s my favorite Staple Singers track, a soaring inspirational anthem about racial and political harmony. It gets me every time and I would say Friday night was no different, but it was.

Mavis Staples is 76 now, her voice deeper and throatier and somehow even more authoritative after nearly 60 years of professional singing. And there she was, about 8 feet from where we were sitting, locking eyes with me (amongst others up front), belting out, “No hatred/Will be tolerated/Peace and love will grow between the races/Love is the only transportation/To where there’s total communication” and cajoling the audience to “come go with” her.

It was one of the most powerful concert moments of my life and the immediacy of where we were sitting in proximity to where she was standing lent an intimate potency to this performance that just wrecked me in the best way possible. A legendary performer in the twilight of her years, right in front of me, singing one of her most famous anti-war, anti-racism anthems, a song that gives me the feels when I hear the 42-year old original track? I got a little choked up and had tears in my eyes.

It wasn’t an effortless performance, either. You could feel the force she was putting into the words, you could see the toll she was putting on herself to push the words out with such authority and whether it was the effects of aging or a lingering malady, a toll was being taken. There was an inhaler and a bottle of water on a stool behind her microphone stand; you could see her struggle to regain her breath between verses during each song and I wondered if she’d be able to make it to the next line, much less through the entire show.

But she persevered, sounding a little rough at times, but always strong. In between songs she was in high spirits and good humor, telling jokes and reminding us that music and life are to be enjoyed , even if neither one is easy.

Take the song “Fight.” Sonically, it’s in the bluesy gospel tradition of the Staple Singers and like those songs it’s about equality, but economic instead of racial. When she sings, “So I pray, though I’m tired/But this can’t wait,” you feel weary from the battles we face every day, but the track builds upwards and urges the audience and vocalists on stage to chant the chorus of “We fight, fight” and you can’t help but feel like you’re being raised up to another level.

That level reached its peak with her closer, “I’ll Take You There,” a song about transcending the struggles and strife to reach a higher plane of existence. For the second time that night, I welled up with tears. I was there.

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