A few weeks ago, while tinkering with her MacBook en route to speak at the Porter Colloquium — an arts conference for black visual artists — at Howard University in D.C., art historian Phyllis Jackson weighed in on the then-raging Don Imus controversy. “The fact that those girls [the Rutgers basketball team] were shocked and surprised by Imus saying what he did lets me know that there has somehow been a real failure on our part to really teach this generation, to communicate to them the realities of this country. They should be angry, yes. But shocked? Floored? We knew we were at war. They don’t know. I sometimes wonder, what country do they [post-civil-rights era black kids] think they’re living in?”
“They had a hunting season on the rabbit|?If you shoot him, you went to jail/Season was always open on me/Nobody needed no bail . . .” sings Mavis Staples on the second verse of “Down in Mississippi,” the opening song on her fantastic new Ry Cooder–produced CD, We’ll Never Turn Back. The collection is a genre overhaul of Negro traditionals (“We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Eyes on the Prize”) and gospel standards (“99 and ½”), as well as a showcase for powerful original songs (“My Own Eyes”). With backing vocals provided by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Cooder and Staples revitalize some old freedom songs, many of which have been the soundtrack to Negro resistance in this country since before the civil rights movement of the ’60s, and most famously during, and create some new ones while they’re at it. But with biting references to Hurricane Katrina, the enduring practice of police brutality, ongoing poverty and more racialized ills, they also make clear how painfully relevant this protest music still is. Nappy headed hoes stand up!
“Down . . .,” Staples’ spoken interlude about breaking the color barrier of Mississippi water fountains as a young girl, is given a cinematically evocative musical backdrop via tense skittering guitar and a steady backbeat, as the singer paints the connection between individual acts of courage and large-scale social change. Powerfully raw, suggestive blues is the foundation of the CD, but that root allows the collaborators to sprawl through other genres, reminding you of the connections between them all — blues and gospel, spirituals and jazz. The faint country feel of “My Own Eyes” recounts the story of the singer as a youngster and her father, the legendary Pops Staples, spending a night in jail on the whim of a racist cop, and how the words of Dr. Martin Luther King inspired them to use that injustice as their fuel to fight back. In that same song, an older and somewhat fatigued Mavis moans “Why . . .” over and over at the resilience of bigotry. She’s consoled and advised by the words of her father, who admits that he also thought the country would have been much more evolved than it is, given the battles already fought. But the line that leaps out at you is one that is embedded with knowledge of the ways black folk have historically been gaslighted, having our experiences and what we know to be true about this country slighted or flat-out denied.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” sings Ms. Staples in that patented gravel-and-silk voice, “so I know the truth.”
MAVIS STAPLES | We’ll Never Turn Back | Anti-
Mavis Staples “Eyes On The Prize”