Friday, November 28, 2008

Mavis Staples' Hope

Yes. Oh yea
We are so happy to be with you tonight.
I tell you it’s a double treat
We’re at the hideout and we’re at home
We’ve come tonight to bring you some joy, some happiness, inspiration, and some positive vibrations.
We want to leave you with enough to last you for maybe the next 6 months

Music can be viewed through so many different lenses. It could be labeled simple entertainment: something to listen to to pass the time, to avoid silence, background filler (Musak). You could consider it a luxury: something commodified for the benefit of some wealthy record executives and occasionally a few dimes make their way to the musicians. You could elevate it to a higher level and consider another possibility, that it’s an auditory performance of art. While many of us (especially those of us reading this) would not want to imagine a life without music of some sort, our lives would still continue on. Our need for music is one of desire, not of survival.

That’s not always been the case though. Music used to matter. Music was a tool of consciousness, a tool of survival, a tool of self-empowerment, a tool of political critique. You could make arguments for various contemporary artists: early U2, the We Are the World recording, Fela Kuti. While most of us have no direct conscious connection, try to travel back to the 60’s and the Civil Rights Movement here in the United States. At that time, there was music being made that mattered, music that carried the hopes of an entire population of disenfranchised citizens.

Mavis Staples was brought into that music, and to this day carries forth those ideals so they will not be forgotten, and her latest album, Live, Hope at the Hideout, continues with that tradition. The quote at the top is from Mavis, as she greeted the crowd at the Hideout in Chicago, Illinois on June 23rd, 2008. The last comment about enough hope for 6 months is no arbitrary number: it refers to the presidential inauguration day.

The album is all about hope and the problems that hope overcomes. It’s expressed in Mavis’ singing of traditional spirituals that embodied the Civil Rights Movement, songs like Eyes on the Prize, Wade In the Water, Waiting For My Child, This Little Light, We Shall Not Be Moved, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (which Mavis discusses as the very first song her father Pops Staples taught her and her siblings), and On My Way. It’s expressed in songs she originally performed with her family as the Staples Singers, songs like Why Am I Treated So Bad and I’ll Take You There. It’s expressed in the classic J.B. Lenoir song Down In Mississippi and the Buffalo Springfield song For What It’s Worth (which begins the album with it’s opening lines “Something’s happenin’ here / what it is ain’t exactly clear – but by the end of the album, you know exactly what’s going on here).

This live release follows on the heels of 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, an album also much in the spirit of the 60’s Civil Rights Movement, and it includes several of its tracks. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the last one, there’s just something so powerful about hearing Mavis perform these songs live. I was able to catch her over the summer, although it wasn’t in nearly an intimate setting as the Hideout, and was absolutely drawn in. To hear her here though, it’s such a pleasure. At times spiritual, and others defiantly growling, her voice betrays none of her age and stills carries a power to connect the listener with her songs of a past our country needs to overcome and move past, but not forget.

I’ll get off of my pulpit now and simply ask you to listen to Eyes on the Prize (which includes Mavis’ opening welcome at the top of the post) below and then purchase a copy of this album for yourself.

and an older one:

Visit her website, her label Anti-, and become her friend on MySpace.

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