28 Nov 2017

If All I Was Was Black by Mavis Staples

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 28 November 2017

Nick Bollinger reviews a new set of gospel and protest from 78-year old American 'national treasure' Mavis Staples.

Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples Photo: supplied

When did Americans started calling Mavis Staples a national treasure? It seems to have been some time since the death of her father Pops Staples, which was a reminder that one should appreciate good things while you’ve got them.

And patronising as that ‘national treasure’ tag sounds, it at least means that for the last few years there have been plenty of people keen to make records with her.

If All I Was Was Black is a concise and coherent collection of new songs, written and produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

And it both harks back to the socially-conscious music Staples made in the 60s and 70s with her father and sisters, and speaks to the situation in America today.

In a song like ‘A Little Bit’, Staples and Tweedy directly confront the epidemic of young black men dying at the hands of police. At other times they draw on traditional slogans of protest and gospel music to convey a more general sense of urgency.

If All I Was Was Black is the third album Tweedy has made with Mavis, and for him it seems to have been the most immersive. Though he penned the title tracks of both previous albums (You Are Not Alone and One True Vine), here he has written every song.

At times it is as though he has made Staples a conduit for his own concerns and anxieties. But more often it is as though he is the conduit, translating Staples’ language and experiences into song.

The title track is a case in point. It would be ridiculous for Tweedy to sing it himself, yet Staples delivers his lyric with such authority she might as well have written it.

If the song stems from frustration at the stupidity of racism and the way it is used to perpetuate inequality, Mavis’s response is to turn-the-other-cheek; to offer her gifts, her perspective, her love.

Positive vibes in the face of evil and ignorance have been Staples’ stock in trade since the Staples’ Singers records she made with her father and sisters in the 60s, and new songs like these are firmly in that tradition. Musically too, they nod to the past.

With Tweedy joined by members of Mavis’s own current band, the whole thing gravitates to a rootsy funk. A tremolo guitar conjures memories of Mavis’s late father. Even the drum machine that can occasionally be heard is clearly a vintage model.

Vocally Mavis at 78 might not push herself into the gospel flights of her earliest recordings, but her voice is still balm for the soul.