We, the people, have largely chosen to remain silent while America undergoes ever-heightening throes of self-destruction. Some manage to find their voice in this darkness, though. With her fiery contralto, cracked by grit, age, anger and the wages of hard-won wisdom, Mavis Staples has shaped her April release, We'll Never Turn Back (Anti), into a roots gauntlet slapped against the collective face of all the obsequious American courtiers and jesters come to genuflect with Queen Elizabeth II last week at the altar of Ye Olde Jamestowne Colony. This disc is her rage against the machine, fearlessly indicting a government and a society which often failed America's darker citizens in the 1960s Deep South as surely as these entities do in the 2000s Gulf Coast. As Staples has simply commented, "It's 2007, and there are still so many problems in the world."
Extending the career renaissance with 2004's Have A Little Faith, Mavis Staples applies a raw voice, Civil Rights Movement bona fides and righteous anger to a virtually seamless blend of '60s Movement songbook and contemporary co-writes infused with gospel, blues, soul and twang. Although the arc of the disc bears the distinct imprint of Ry Cooder's spare, unvarnished production and guitar, We'll Never Turn Back is no mere archival project. Best of all, the organic power and mastery inherent in Staples' mature singing comes as a timely reminder of what good resulted from Columbus' adventuring and the Jamestown colonists' landfall on May 14, 1607: Southern soul. Just as the Stax label is being resurrected by Concord, one of its former brightest stars has also recorded some of the best work of her career.
Swinging out from the start with a deep funk version of J.B. Lenoir's "Down in Mississippi," this disc brings the fervor, compassion and strength of everyday people on the Movement's southern frontline to this postmodern moment of renewed war games, identity turbulence and social upheaval. We'll Never Turn Back effectively serves as a bookend to 1965's Freedom Highway, a movement standard released by Staples with her late father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and siblings Cleotha and Purvis after Dr. King's march on Montgomery, Ala.
At a time when yet another British Invasion is plaguing these shores via the soul-dependent cultural production of such younger female artists as Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, Mavis Staples' rich sounds built upon the '70s gospel-pop gems of her family band are one of the few viable responses to what's worth salvaging in a chaotic America. The 12 songs of We'll Never Turn Back are also a rebuttal to another aspiring soul diva, Beyoncé, whose B'Day some would have anointed as a post-Katrina manifesto of power and enfranchisement for the Gulf Coast's dark sisterhood. Instead of name-checking Audemars Piguet and other symbols of Europa's persistent material hold over her old prime colony as Beyoncé did, Staples catches such culture heroes as the late Fred Hampton and conjures the spirits of those young dear girls martyred in Bombingham -- Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson.
These songs eschew the shallow man-hungry, materialistic odes of contempo R&B and hip-hop to detail the post-60s failures of integration, justice denied, the lies and manipulations of politicians, racism, violence ... broken treaties, broken promises. She aims straight at the horror of Katrina America more effectively, testifying on "99 and a 1/2": "It's the 21st Century / Feels like it's 1960 / Broken levees ... Freedom now!" Although unafraid to show anger, Staples' message of female solidarity and empowerment required to overcome -- of a kind virtually unthinkable to express in today's pop culture -- is carried over to the album art's image of two young black women bravely clasping hands to face down the hoses of white cops and mob violence of southern segregationists.
As her vocals throughout this disc give us the power to soar, it is hoped Staples might be given enough freedom in her vital work to counter the allure of the sassy babes of the current sonic Rule Britannia as they tour this spring in Elizabeth's royal wake.
As a proud survivor of the Powhatan Confederacy, I am deeply disturbed by the fate of the Gulf Coast peoples -- regardless of descent -- and simultaneously unmoved by the failures of America's imperialist reach around the globe. To my mind, what has gone down in New Orleans, which rightfully stirs Staples' most furious vocal delivery, is the inevitable result of a society whose beliefs can be summed clearly in this Robert Johnson quote (no relation to the Queen City mogul): "The land which we have searched out is a very good land, and if the Lord love us, he will bring our people to it, and give it to us for a possession."
What darkness was set in motion in May 1607 by the Jamestown colonists has rendered my soul and existence in a precarious place in May 2007 when all in America are meant to take pleasure and rejoice in the triumph of persistence. That the symbolic re-colonization process of artists in the Winehouse vein should be concurrent with this time of Yankee celebration seems no accident, and makes these days extremely surreal. Like the late great Fannie Lou Hamer declared once upon a time in Movement days, I'm "sick and tired of being sick and tired" about America's entrenched state of disgrace. Fortunately, Mavis Staples and her recording are imbued with restorative truth and the real. I can take heart that Mavis Staples has still got her eyes squarely on the prize.