Mavis Staples still sings, witnesses, fights
Mavis Staples at Lincoln Center Out of Doors
Whether or not it was coincidence that Mavis Staples headlined Lincoln Center Out of Doors’ AmericanaFest NYC concert last night at Damrosch Park, it couldn’t have been more fitting. For last night was the eve of the first-year anniversary of the infamous Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that took the life of Heather Heyer, and as opener Joe Henry noted during his set, Mavis Staples has been bringing people together for the 69 years since the Staples Singers formed.
She did it again at Damrosch.
“We got danger in the United States right now!” preached Staples, evoking her family group’s gospel roots. “We’re in trouble! We’re living in trying times.”
“I might go to Washington myself,” she continued, in jest, perhaps, since she hastily added they might send her back to the Staples’ Chicago hometown. But the Staples’ Gospel Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legacy extends in all directions, as their pop hits like “I’ll Take You There” and Civil Rights Era anthems like “Freedom Highway” again evidenced in concert.
Staples patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples wrote the latter song--which references the murder of Emmett Till--as a tribute to the pivotal 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.
“It was the big march!” bellowed Staples. “I’m a witness. I’m a huge witness. I’m a soldier, y’all! I’m still fighting, out in this battlefield. Somebody say, ‘Yeah’! [For the record, everybody said, ‘Yeah!’] I feel good, y’all.”
And when Mavis Staples feels good, as Henry had suggested and the Damrosch Park crowd attested, she takes them there with her, no matter that maybe the line in the Staples’ 1971 hit “Respect Yourself,” “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a brand new day,” a year after Charlottesville, lacks total conviction. But their 1974 hit “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” which she also sang, is certainly no less relevant.
“It’s nice to be nice,” said Staples, who’s seen it all, done it all. “If you see me, you better smile.”
The Staples Singers' "Freedom Highway"