If All I Was Was Black (Epitaph)
There’s “no time for crying, no time for tears, we’ve got work to do” Mavis Staples says in the snaky little blues, No Time For Crying, which is one more gutbucket guitar sound away from a Fat Possum record.
It’s a tense, urgent even call to arms, to a country – and let’s be honest about this, not just that country – riven by reactionary politics and failures at street level. But it’s not quite all that this implies.
Who Told You That makes a similar point - a bit Electric Mud in its febrile drive; a bit Respect Yourself in its clear-eyed punch - Staples firmly correcting anyone who mistakes politeness for giving up. “We don’t want to rock? Who told you that?”
This is a protest album, but not a polemic. Anger is not the only point. Anger in fact is not often a significant factor – it’s there, don’t mistake me, but it’s in the mix rather than in the lead. As she sings in the simply presented, clap-rhythm-in-the-choir-stalls Peaceful Dream, “I’ll keep it here for you, so we can make it through all the darkest days of our lives ... come and share my peaceful dream”.
Certainty of purpose, confidence in the worth of people, and faith offer hope to sit alongside the strong words of resistance, the refusal to sink as low as the bigots and bastards, and the incitement to act against them together.
After all, borrowing from the line Michelle Obama used in the American election campaign, Staples argues “we go high when they go low”, something Staples learned at the knee of her father, “Pops” Staples, when she began singing gospel with the family singers some 70 years ago.
More often you will find Staples talking about “building a bridge over the mountain”, not to get away but to connect. Which isn’t to say concede but rather, for example, pointing out that “When I say my life matters, you can say yours does too/But I bet you never have to remind anyone to look at it from your point of view” – and asking the listener to “walk right over to me”.
Jeff Tweedy’s songs – this is the third time he’s produced her but the first time all the material has been written by him - reflect his closeness to Staples for about a decade now. It’s not just in understanding her philosophy and morality as much as her phrasing, but in crafting songs that can pull from soul, gospel, southern and northern blues and folk in ways that they emerge from, rather being imposed on, her.
The album’s opener, Little Bit, has a terse, repetitive riff that flowers into a kind of pure Texan solo and a gospel tune that isn’t trying to be uplifting, preferring to take a firm hand. But the mood immediately shifts with the following title track which has a Willie Mitchell groove and groovier still rhythmic guitar, married to a joyous mood sweetened just so with coo-ing backing vocals.
Tweedy finds a way down the many roads of Staples’ long career but never lets it feel like a box-ticking exercise or a “remember all she’s done” job. He knows it isn’t appropriate but also it isn’t necessary by now, thanks in part to the refreshing of her legacy she and he have done in recent years.
By the time the country-pickin’ All Over Again closes the album, Staples sounding a little more fragile but buoyed on a swell of voices, her declaration that “I’d dream the same dreams, I’d do the same things/my friend I’d do it all over again” is as reassuring as you could ask for. Even if you hope that she doesn’t have to keep fighting this fight.