KEXP Documentaries: Civil Rights Songs – “When Will We Be Paid For The Work We’ve Done?”

The Staple Singers

Greetings, producer Michele Myers here. It’s my job to bring you a musical subject each week. And this week it’s the last episode of our 10-part series Civil Rights Songs: a story on the song “When Will We Be Paid For The Work We’ve Done” by The Staple Singers.


The Staple Singers were a family group from Mississippi who worked hard to keep the attention of the pop charts. With Pops’ sweet tenor and Delta blues guitar sound and Mavis’s deep soulful voice, they didn’t sound like any other groups. Their lyrics were bold for the 1970’s, addressing equal pay for equal work, visions for a new society and the politics of mistreatment.

Mavis Staples tells the story of her dad’s meeting with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how her father decided to follow King’s lead in finding activist subjects to sing about. Pop Staples said “If he can preach it, we can sing it.”

In Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, King talks about the U.S. Constitution, comparing it to a promissory note to the American people. He then says “America has given the negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds'”. This part of the speech was the inspiration for the Staple Singers’ song “When Will We Be Paid For The Work We’ve Done?”

Listen to the documentary now:

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KEXP Documentaries are produced by Michele Myers. With assistance from John Felthous and Jentery Sayers. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. Find all our documentary series in On Demand section at KEXP.ORG.

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One Comment

  1. mademusic
    Posted February 18, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    another great one I also liked the one with Sam Cooke. Great stuff

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