Music has served as one of the most important inspirations of the modern Civil Rights Movement that emerged during the 1950s. For more than half a century, the Staple Singers have been at the forefront of the fight; at churches, marches, demonstrations, celebrations, and gatherings of all types. Mavis Staples began singing with the family before she was even a teenager. She turns 80 years old in July. Staples has witnessed the great transformations that have been made in terms of race relations in American life. But she is not satisfied.
Staples makes this clear from the very beginning of her latest solo release, We Get By. The first words she sings are “gotta change around here” and she reiterates this theme several times on her new album. That’s not a great shock as she has always been an activist. What is surprising is Staples’ ability to make this message fresh again. Part of this is due to her willingness to work with contemporary musicians, in this case, Ben Harper. While the almost 50-year-old Harper is no spring chicken, the bulk of his successful work has occurred during this century.
Harper wrote (and produced) all 11 tracks on this disc specifically for Staples and this record. He also joins her on the title cut, which reverberates with the classic sound of the Band circa Stage Fright and celebrates the importance of friends and family. The two sing in warm voices and don’t really harmonize as much as sound as if they were cut from the same sonic cloth. Their distinct identities remain to show the power of their support for each other.
While “We Get By” offers a reassuring vibe, the other songs offer a more dynamic response to living in America. She addresses this explicitly on songs such as “Brothers and Sisters” where she declares, “Trouble in the land / We can’t trust that man / Bring us another plan” and the other details provided make it clear she is preaching about Donald Trump and contemporary racism. “Something’s got to give,” she croons in a gruff voice as a call to action, “we’ve come too far to be lost.” Staples’ plan for what’s next may not be clear, but her defiance is.
The love songs on We Get By show how important this is to give purpose to life. She may be old, but she’s not about to give up on the passion for another. Staples does not sound her age, or maybe a better way to put this is that while her voice contains the wisdom and depth of someone who has plenty of experience, she expresses herself with the verve and gusto of a fresh talent trying to prove her mettle. Despite the obstacles of modern life, Staples never falters. She’s strong and self-reliant. Although Staples sings of her desire for a lover and the need for community, those are just essential parts of her individual personality. Even when she coos “take a chance on me”, her seductive appeal emerges from the force of her being.
But there is “One More Change” Staples faces. Death comes for us all, even if we don’t want to slow down. Her faith allows her to face this dignity and hope. Staples’ voice takes on a martial cadence as she announces her belief in what’s ahead. But as the album as a whole suggests, she’s not ready to go yet. She still needs to help change the world, fall in love, and live a full life for as long as she is able. Amen, sister.