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Mavis Staples CD Celebrates Civil Rights

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The voice of Mavis Staples helped her family's gospel group to the top of the pop charts in the 1960s and '70s.

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Ms. MAVIS STAPLES (Singer): (Singing) Ain't no smiling faces. Mm-mm. No, no. Lying to the races.

MONTAGNE: The Staple Singers sang songs of hope in a time of controversy and social consciousness. Now, Mavis Staples revisits the protest music of the civil rights era on the most outspoken recording of her career. She talked about her new album, "We'll Never Turn Back," with journalist Ashley Kahn.

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) And Jesus is on the main line.

ASHLEY KAHN: There's always been a lot of depth to Mavis Staples' voice, deep as in a huskiness that suggested experience beyond her years.

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) Tell him, tell him what you want.

KAHN: And deep in the sense of conviction. Whether singing soul, blues or gospel, Mavis Staples has never left the church far behind.

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) If you...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Want your justice...

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) Want your justice...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Tell him...

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) Tell him what you want.

Ms. STAPLES: Let me tell you something. You don't need gimmicks to sing God's music. My father, he told me, you know what comes from the heart reaches the heart.

KAHN: Mavis Staples has been singing professionally for almost 60 of her 66 years. She was only 12 when her father Pops Staples insisted that she sing lead in their family group.

Ms. STAPLES: My voice was really heavy when I was kid, and for some reason I could reach the highs and the lows.

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Ms. STAPLES (Singing) (Unintelligible)

KAHN: The Staple Singers popularity took them on tours throughout the South, where they witnessed the growing civil rights movement and met leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Ms. STAPLES: You know, we would sing before Dr. King would speak. We'd go to the meetings and Dr. King would tell pops, now Stape, you're going to sing my song tonight, right? And Pops would say, oh yeah, Doctor, we're going to sing you a song, "Why Am I Treated So Bad?"

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) All alone as I sing this song. Hear my call, I've done nobody wrong, but I'm treated so bad.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): If it hadn't been for the music, from the Staple Singers and others, the movement would've been like a bird without wings.

KAHN: Georgia Congressman John Lewis was another civil rights leader who marched to the music of the time.

Rep. LEWIS: These songs gave us a sense of courage that we could overcome.

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved. Like a tree that's planted by the water we shall not be moved.

That song we would mostly sing for sit-ins, you know, when your arms lock together and they'd be trying to get you up to put you in the paddy wagon. You know, we'd start singing (singing) I shall not, I shall not be moved.

Now, mind you, the Staple Singers, we never did record any of these songs.

KAHN: Now, more than 40 years after the civil rights struggle, Mavis Staples has recorded some of the best-known freedom songs for her new CD, "We'll Never Turn Back."

Ms. STAPLES: God has kept me here to sing my song. And, you know, the youth today, you want them to know about these songs.

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) Hold on.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hold on.

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) Hold on.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hold on.

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

KAHN: The album features a number of guest singers, including the South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a vocal group formed in 1962 to support the civil rights movement.

Ms. STAPLES: These are the original freedom singers. They're singing on my CD with me. This was in the studio. And we'd had lunch and all of a sudden they just started singing.

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Unidentified Man: (Singing) In the Mississippi River...

Ms. STAPLES: I asked them to explain it. They were dragging the Mississippi River for these three freedom fighters and they were pulling up other bodies that the people weren't looking for. That's why they said, and you can count them one by one. It could be your son. Count them two by two. It could be me or you.

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Unidentified Man: (Singing) You can count them three by three.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Now, don't you want to see.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You can count them four by four.

Ms. STAPLES: And, I mean, there were chills going over you, you know. I looked at Ry and he looked on me, and we let them finish.

KAHN: Ry is Ry Cooder, the well-known guitarist who produced "We'll Never Turn Back." He helped to add a sense of urgency and a darker edge to these songs from a more innocent time.

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KAHN: The message in the music remains as relevant today as it was in the '60s.

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) It's been almost 50 years, how much longer will it last?

Today, I still have a need to sing these songs. Listen, racism is still here. You see it in the news. You see a policeman shoot a young, black man 50 rounds. From watching that it took me back to those waterhoses and the billy clubs. You don't have to wonder, it tells it all.

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Ms. STAPLES (Singing): I saw New Orleans, saw the people left for dead. I've heard every bald-faced lie you politicians said...

KAHN: Today, Mavis Staples is considered a soul diva on the level of Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight. She's got eight solo albums to her credit and only now has she created a recording that truly reflects all she has to say - the anger and the hope, the blues and the gospel.

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Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) (unintelligible) I know it's true.

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is the author of "The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records." Mavis Staples' new album, "We'll Never Turn Back," has just been released.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.