Mavis Staples is a youthful 76. She says, “It puts a wonder on your mind. I’m losing all of my friends, and you really wonder how much longer you have, and how it will be when you leave. But whenever I have to go, I feel like I’m ready. I feel like I have lived a wonderful life.”
This joie de vivre comes through in spades in the new documentary about her life, Mavis!, which if you’re not lucky enough to see in a movie theatre, you can download from itunes. Mavis! is an hour and a half of sheer joy, taking you through Mavis Staples’ career from the 1950s until now. And what a career, from singing gospel in her family’s band to their becoming civil rights icons with the freedom songs of the 60s, to funky soul in the 70s, to two albums with Prince in the 80s, and of late 3 excellent rootsy, bluesy, stripped back albums produced lovingly by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedie.
The Staples Singers led by the indomitable Pops Staples and featuring Mavis’s charisma and amazing voice moved against the tide of gospel singing in the 60s under the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. whom Pops admired greatly. They began to sing protest and freedom songs, like Why (Am I Treated So Bad), where other gospel groups wanted to stick with the more spiritual stuff. The truth is, of course, that the freedom material is every bit as spiritual as the “spiritual.” Faith without works is dead, as someone put it a long time ago.
Staples still sings these political songs. “They’re still relevant. You know, sometimes I can watch the news on the television and I feel like I’m back in the 60s,” she says. MLK Song on her new album, Livin’ On A High Note is based on a Martin Luther King speech she remembers hearing: “In the march for peace / Tell them I played the drum / When I have to meet my day.”
Livin’ On A High Note, her 13th solo album, is terrific, typically Mavis and, like the film, joyous. She told her songwriters, “I want something joyful. I want to stop making people cry. I’ve been making people cry all my life. The songs I sing, the freedom songs and my gospel songs — I know I’ve been inspiring and uplifting people. But now I want to reach them in a joyful way.”
And what a great panel of songwriters she has – a testimony to the respect in which Mavis Staples is held. They include Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards), Nick Cave, Neko Case, Ben Harper and M. Ward.
One song I find very intriguing is Nick Cave’s contribution, Jesus, Lay Down Beside Down Me. The song is interesting from a theological point of view. We tend to think of God – rightly – as the one who looks after us, cares for us, loves us. This song inverts things and invites us to think about us caring for God, for Jesus. “Jesus, lay down beside me, lay down and rest your troubled mind…lay down your worries,” it says, trying to get us to a perspective other than our own. What is the world like from the perspective of the divine? “The truth has fallen on deaf ears, Lord…And the flowers of your love, Lord, refuse to seed, In a world full of greed.”
It reminds us a bit of those doleful verses in John’s gospel, chapter 1, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” In a world where everyone is more concerned about getting more than their fair share, and truth is whatever you want it to be, and Jesus is irrelevant, can we imagine a God’s eye view of things?
“Are you in need?” sings Mavis to the Lord. It reminds me a little of the old John Wesley hymn, O God of Good The Unfathomed Sea, where Wesley says, “yet self sufficient as Thou art, thou dost desire my worthless heart.” Somehow, incredible though it may seem, God – self-sufficient, eternal, omnipotent – desires human love in return for his love. And Nick Cave’s song somehow seems to me to capture this. Love is never a one-way street where one party does all the giving and one all the taking. So perhaps Cave is onto something here, making us think about our part in a relationship with God – real love given, with a care and concern for the other. It starts to take the divine-human relationship away from a sterile belief system into the realm of something real, tangible, alive.
The relationship, given the nature of God, can never be equal. The dependence ultimately will be us upon God. And yet God’s love calls for love in return and love can never be simple dependence; it must be active if it is to mean anything. As St. Augustine once said, ‘To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.”
When Mavis Staples first heard the words of Cave’s song, she said “Woah. I’m going to comfort Jesus instead of him comforting me.” Perhaps they’re both on to something.