The New Protest Songs Of Mavis Staples

mavis staples on stage

In times like these, it’s good to have Mavis. Still out in the world, singing the songs of revolution that served as THE soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. You know those standards by the Staples Singers: “Freedom Highway”, “Why Am I Treated So Bad”, “I’ll Take You There”.

But Mavis isn’t just some past revolutionary singing songs of a bygone era. She’s brought those classic songs with her, and added to them. Like her rendition of the traditional “We Shall Not Be Moved” on her 2007 We’ll Never Turn Back album, which received critical raves and heralded Staples’ return to mainstream success.

Her next three studio albums, You Are Not Alone, One True Vine, and Livin’ on a High Note would all chart in the teens on the US R&B chart (two would chart in the 60s on the general US chart), her highest chart positions as a solo artist, bringing a resurgence in Staples’ celebrity just went the world needed her the most.

As it turns out, times haven’t changed all that much.

But with the urgent need for protest comes the need for protest songs, and Mavis Staples has done her part, releasing three albums – two studio, one live album – since November 2017. With those albums have come four seriously powerful protest songs.

And anyone who’s had the privilege of seeing Mavis perform, and been gifted with her joy, inspiration, and powerful vibrations live in person, knows it’s not just the songs she’s singing. It’s the attitude and optimism of the singer.

You can’t leave a Mavis show without feeling a little better about the world, no matter how bleak it may seem. These four songs may even make you want to do a little something about it.

1. “Change” (We Get By, written by Ben Harper)

Things gotta change. We know they do. Change is what moves us forward, and what those who try to drag us backward fear the most. The message is simple and effective. It’s a marching song through and through.

And the backing vocals are next level.

Power Lyric: What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free?

2. “Brothers and Sisters” (We Get By, written by Ben Harper)

The perfect companion song to “Change,” it’s fitting that “Brothers and Sisters” comes further down the track list, because it picks right up where the other song leaves off. It even harkens back to “Change” in its first lyric.

We may know change needs to come, but who’s going to bring it? It better be us, Brothers and Sisters, because we’re the only hope there is for this world.

Plus, funky grooves like nobody’s business.

Power Lyric: Something’s got to give, something’s got to give, something’s got to give.

Most Timely Lyric: We can’t trust that man. (Which says a lot that needs sayin’.)

3. “No Time For Crying” (If All I Was Was Black, written by Jeff Tweedy & Mavis Staples)

Six months after the 2016 presidential election, Mavis Staples entered a studio with Jeff Tweedy to lay down the tracks for what is essentially a protest album from start to finish – If All I Was Was Black. Its song “No Time For Crying,” took aim at where a lot of people in the country were at that moment – in mourning – and turned it into a call for action.

There aren’t a lot of lyrics. The song doesn’t need them. The simple chorus, instead, allows Mavis to do what she does so well live, riff about what needs fixing right now. Which she does to perfection on her 2019 live album Live in London, where she adds the timely verse:

Gotta look at the children

Gotta look at the children

Gotta see about the little babies

Motherless children

Motherless children

Ah, what a world we’re livin’ in

It’s a mean old world we’re living in

Taking babies away from their mothers

Taking babies away from their mothers

We’ve got motherless children

Motherless children

Arguably, this makes the live version of “No Time For Crying” the most powerful official recording. But, no matter which version you’re listening to, you gotta dig the electric guitar and bassline.

Power Lyric: We’ve got no time for crying. We’ve got work to do.

4. “Who Told You That” (If All I Was Was Black, written by Jeff Tweedy)

Like “No Time for Crying,” “Who Told You That” starts by finding its listeners where they are, but more directly – in this case, depressed and despondent. (It’s not as morose as it sounds.)

Then come the opposition voices who think demanding change is problematic and pointless. And those voices get answered with a simple question “Who Told You That?” Which, delivered in Staples’ signature rumble, brings all the power right back to the people.

Power Lyric: We don’t wanna rock the boat. Who told you that?

Most Timely Lyric: It’s like a rainy day, that never goes away.

Well, if that ain’t just a straight-up mood.

top image: Bruce/Flickr, CC2.0

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