When The Staple Singers started out in the sixties they had a simple mission, as outlined by Pops himself: ‘We want to sing about what’s happening in the world today, and if it’s something bad, we want to sing a song to try to fix it.” Fast forward fifty years and the world is as broken as ever. You’d forgive Mavis Staples if she was disillusioned with the mission. As she says ‘lately, things are looking worse than they have ever looked.’ And yet, as she sings on this album, there’s no time for crying. If All I Was Was Black is an album concerned with bringing harmony and hope back to the poor huddled masses.
Gospel music is designed to raise your spirits, connect you to a higher power who can help see you through difficult times. Mavis Staples has always channeled this spirituality in her singing, even when her music wasn’t explicitly religious in theme. Working with long time collaborator Jeff Tweedy of Wilco this album is concerned with the world today and how we can do better. Her wise voice is at the centre – it has been an instrument of joy and inspiration going on decades now.
In my opinion Mavis’ previous album Livin on A High Note suffered somewhat from too many songwriters who forced her to sing out of her musical style and range. The high notes were never really where Mavis shined anyway. The songs on this album are all written and produced by Tweedy, giving the album a unity of purpose and vision lacking in her previous one.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my reservations about the fact that a man had written all the songs for this album, and a white man at that. Before I listened I was wondering why she hadn’t chosen to work with other women or black women for that matter (for example she has worked with Valerie June before). In the end one listen to this album settled all my doubts immediately. It’s actually a powerful statement that Mavis wanted to work with Jeff. He’s her friend, first and foremost. She trusts him to tell her story. They see the world the same way. Race and gender aren’t as important as their shared humanity.
This album doesn’t shy away from important and serious topics, just like Pops did. Little Bit is an emotional tribute to those kids who never make it home, though no fault of their own. You have to keep your eyes wide and watch yourself out there, she sings with emotion catching in her voice. The echoing backing voices make this a bold and confident take down of the establishment. What is there to do? Together we fight to sort things out, a little bit from everyone can make the difference.
The stand out here is the title track, an astonishing song really which is a celebration of identity in its multifarious forms. This song really suits Mavis’ smooth lower register and builds beautifully into an uplifting celebration of self. Don’t you want to know me more than that? She asks for herself and anyone who has ever experienced prejudice. Her solution is simple: It’s time for more love.
Ain’t No Doubt About It features Jeff on vocals and is truly lovely. By writing this song Jeff was really communicating his own feelings of friendship to Mavis – saying he’s the one she can count on. It’s been clear from this work and the documentary how important this relationship is to both of them.
Peaceful Dream is a simple hippie song with handclaps and gospel harmonies. It’s a lovely moment of pause but we can’t rest long. We have to take action too. ‘No Time For Crying’ gets us off our seats because we’ve got ‘work to do’. The guitars are heavier on this and the song’s simple repeated refrain could be chanted on any freedom march.
Build a Bridge might seem like an obvious metaphor but as long as the leader of the free world wants to build walls we can never say it enough. When I say my life matters you can say yours does too / but I bet you never have to remind anyone to look at it from your point of view. There’s a real core of human empathy to these songs. A reminder (and we all sometimes need a reminder) to be better, nicer, kinder to each other.
We Go High and Try Harder tell us we have potential to be great, to make a difference. It’s so hard sometimes but you need to be a force for good in the world. This only happens by understanding that evil exists in all of us. We need to work together to overcome.
The final song is a little acoustic coda. I ain’t done yet. I do it all over again. Her voice has never sounded so wise. Sometimes life is just about fighting the same battle over and over again. The important thing is to never give up.
If All I Was Was Black is a short album, and despite its important subject matter never allows itself to be weighed down lyrically or musically. Mavis Staples is here to take a load off, just when we need her the most. All we have to do is listen.