Weird at My School: Mavis Staples

Four years ago, on Election Day 2004, I walked to my polling place, which was only a block from my home, listening to Billy Bragg’s “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.” In fact, I played it throughout the day, to keep my spirits up. Alas, key races in that election did not go the way I’d hoped, and I’ve felt like Billy’s song has been jinxed ever since. (Though I confess, the rousing version on Live At KEXP Volume Three softened that sentiment.)

The media is predicting long waits at polling places tomorrow. Last night, on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow was reporting about lines that were five, seven, and even ten hours long — and that was for early voting in states like Florida. So this year, I’ve got a whole album set aside for my visit to the polls: Live: Hope At the Hideout, the brand new, Election Day release by soul-gospel titan Mavis Staples.

Mavis’ connections to the civil rights movement are well known. Her family ensemble, the Staple Singers, led by patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, had close ties to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. “Daddy said, ‘If Dr. King can preach it, we can sing it,'” she told me in 2004. Her last studio album, 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, was chock full of protest and freedom songs.

Heck, before I ever unearthed their gospel and R&B catalogs, I discovered the music of Mavis and the Staple Singers via their 1984 cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” which was a big hit in gay clubs when I was a youth. And as my friends down in California fighting against Proposition 8 will remind you, gay rights are civil rights. But that’s a subject for another post…

Recorded in June of this year, Live: Hope at the Hideout includes stirring renditions of “Eyes on the Prize,” “Down In Mississippi,” and “Freedom Highway.” There are spirituals and protest songs, and the lines between them are blurred by passion. At the top of the set, Mavis tells the assembled Chicago crowd that her goal for the evening is “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 six months.”

Mavis Staples turned 69 this year. She has been singing and preaching messages of hope and inspiration since she was a child. She has shown tremendous patience in waiting for social progress. So take a moment — or rather, seven minutes — to listen to her version of “We Shall Not Be Moved” below. Pay close attention to the mid-section monologue. If you are confronted with a long wait at the polling place tomorrow, think of what Mavis has witnessed in her lifetime.

Mavis Staples – We Shall Not Be Moved (MP3)

The great leap forward doesn’t come all at once. I’m sorry I glossed over that in my enthusiasm last Election Day, Mr. Bragg. Mavis set me right. I will wait — and work — for as long as it takes to achieve the change we need.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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