Almost no one talks about European-American music as if it were all one thing. Few folks work from the assumption that John Adams’ symphonies, Stephen Sondheim’s show tunes, Kurt Cobain’s grunge, Paul Simon’s folk-rock, Britney Spears’ pop and Willie Nelson’s country are part of one big genre. Yet people talk about African-American music like that all the time—and not just outsiders. Many of that music’s insiders like to talk as if “we’re all in this together.”
Given America’s cultural history, perhaps it’s natural that black musicians resist anything that smells like a divide-and-conquer strategy. But such resistance makes it difficult to appreciate the amazing variety of African-American music. Or to understand the blues-vs.-gospel tension that informs many of the music’s greatest moments. Or to get a grasp on the profound differences between the sound of the Civil Rights Era and the musics that preceded and followed it. Or to fathom such outliers as Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Oscar Brown Jr., Jimi Hendrix and Rhiannon Giddens. Or to properly evaluate Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
For the reflexive attempt to fit Pops into the mainstream of gospel or R&B only diminishes the strangeness and power of this musician. He played guitar like no one else—not very fast, not with a lot of notes and not with a lot of range, but as if each string on his instrument had been snipped and retied into a barbed-wire strand. Unhurried and uncluttered, his guitar phrases used their flatted thirds and sevenths to evoke both brutal treatment and resilient optimism.
He sang much the same way: making the most of a few, laconic notes. Perhaps his closest analogue was Johnny Cash, whose voice was similarly bottled up in a shortened range but who likewise sang with the nerve-jangling authority of an Old Testament prophet.
The economy and patience of Pops Staples’ music reflects another source of the diversity in African-American music: the tension between town and the country. Both his singing and his guitar playing are products of the Mississippi farmland where he grew up. Much of his early repertoire came from the pre-1920 black community, which was as overwhelmingly rural as today’s black community is overwhelmingly urban.
Though he moved to Chicago and raised his son and daughters there, Pops never let go of that essential “country” quality in his music—the sound of an environment where a quiet note could carry farther through the silent night, where there was no hurry to get to the next song and where death was only a failed crop away.
You can appreciate the continuity of Pops’ influence over the course of the Staple Singers’ career on the new four-CD, 80-track box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey, 1953-1976, the first anthology to collect songs from most of the labels the Staples recorded for during those years: Royal, United, Savoy, Vee-Jay, Riverside, D-Town, Epic, Stax and Warner Bros. Even as the repertoire shifted from traditional spirituals to new songs written in the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, the echo of Mississippi’s piney woods in Pops’ voice and guitar was a constant.
Pops, of course, shared the lead vocals with his middle daughter Mavis, whose voice was immense, able to go much higher and even lower than Pops’ tenor. On many songs, Pops would take the lead at first before handing it off to Mavis. She would thicken the tone and pump up the power, but she always retained the rural restraint of her father’s example, eschewing the show-off clutter of most urban gospel singers. This left plenty of room for her siblings Cleotha, Pervis and/or Yvonne to answer with clipped, rhythmic harmonies.
When Martin Luther King Jr. heard the Staple Singers sing their gospel hits “Uncloudy Day” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” he heard the sound of his childhood. When Pops heard King preach, he heard the promise that the singer’s optimism might be realized on this earth. Before long the family group was recording Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Mavis was turning down Bob Dylan’s marriage proposal at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
When Pops made that link explicit in the lyrics of songs such as “Freedom Highway” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad),” the Staple Singers borrowed a little of the rural folk of Dylan and Pete Seeger and a little of the urban gospel-soul of Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield and came up with a sound that reminded you of both but didn’t sound exactly like either. It was so original that its differences from the rest of African-American music are at least as important as its similarities.
This blend matured into a series of band-driven, secular hymns such as “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready,” which all crossed over to the pop Top 15 in 1971-73. But even when the Staple Singers were sporting orb-shaped afros when they sang in a jam-packed Los Angeles Coliseum during the Wattstax Festival in 1972, the group was still defined by Pops’ cotton-field guitar sound and backwoods church singing.
Music critics James Miller and Opal Louis Nations tell this story well in the hardback, photo-stuffed, 66-page book that comes with the box set. Music critic Greg Kot tells the same story in much more detail in his terrific 2014 biography, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March up Freedom’s Highway.
Unlike so many musician biographers, Kot never takes his eye off the real reason for such a book: the music. Kot documents the various celebrities that drifted through the Staples’ orbit—from King and Dylan to Cooke and Prince—but he always emphasizes with how these encounters influenced the music. And Kot’s clinical dissection of the key recordings opens up the torsos and usually finds Pops’ twitchy, push-and-pull guitar phrases at the heart.
A worthy complement to the box set and the biography is Jessica Edwards’ 2015 film documentary, Mavis! Just as Kot’s book avoided the temptation to focus on scandal fodder, Edwards’ movie avoids the easy path of relying on celebrities to deliver on-camera testimonials about how terrific Mavis is. The filmmaker trusted that the audience could figure that out from the plentiful performance clips, so she only used talking-head interviews if the subjects had worked directly with Mavis and could advance the narrative.
The result is one of the best music documentaries of this decade. The film includes the scene of Mavis receiving her first Grammy Award in 2011; she looked up overhead and said, “It’s all because of you, Pop, that I am here. You built the foundation, and I’m still working on the building.” The picture ends with Mavis and her recent producer Jeff Tweedy fleshing out Pops’ final recordings, which he left unfinished when he died in 2000.
That album, Don’t Lose This, named after Pops’ instructions to Mavis when he gave her the tapes, was released in 2015. Mavis and Tweedy resisted the temptation to overload the original recordings with busywork and left Pops’ guitar and vocals out front with just enough funky bottom and churchy harmony singing to put some muscle behind Pops’ sneaky jabs. The result is one more brilliant example of just how unusual Pops’ music was in the context of African-American music—or any other music for that matter. We will never see his like again.