Reading this book in the month of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson it’s tempting to ask if anything has really changed in the US in the 100 years since Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples was born.
Working in the Mississippi cotton fields as a teenager, by his early 20s he had, like many others, migrated to Chicago and started working in the stock yards and factories. But those migrating found another form of segregation. There may not have been legal segregation, but they mostly lived in the South Side of the city and faced economic discrimination.
Pops Staples found sanctuary in the church and gospel music as he had done in Mississippi. He was part of a church group, but when other band members did not show up, he gathered his children and taught them a song. They performed it and the Staple Singers were born.
Greg Kot has written an excellent biography of Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers that is intimately tied up in their music and their close links to the civil rights movement. He charts their early recording history with Vee-Jay records, their signing to the Stax label in Memphis, and there are great interviews with members of the “The Swampers”, a group of white southern musicians who worked with the Staples on some of their best-known songs.
By 1963 the Staple Singers were well known enough that Pops could arrange to meet Martin Luther King. When he returned, he told his family, “If he can preach it, we can sing it”, which set the future direction for the family. Songs like “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)”, “Long Walk To DC”, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” became both anthems of the civil rights movement and a reflection of the following Black Power movement.
Kot describes the relationship between the civil rights movement and music, not just gospel, and why the artists felt it was important to be involved. While on tour in 1965 the family saw images of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, which were attacked by the police with tear gas, clubs and dogs.
In response, Pops Staples wrote “Freedom Highway”. Mavis says, “My father wrote that song…for the big march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. We marched, we marched and we marched, and it ain't over yet… I’m still on that highway and I’ll be there until Dr Martin Luther King’s dream has been realised.”
As a solo artist Mavis Staples has continued to write and perform music with a message, such as her fantastic album “We’ll Never Turn Back”. Much has changed, much more still has to change, but people aren't prepared to go back to a time before the civil rights movement.