Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home, ANTI-Records
Mavis Staples and the late Levon Helm recorded the songs on Carry Me Home at Helm Studios in Woodstock in the summer of 2011. It was to be one of the final recording sessions for Helm before he died the next year.
The pair are icons of Americana and roots music, Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists of the Band, and Mavis Staples, celebrated gospel and blues singer and civil rights activist. Both performed their music for more than 50 years, from the early sixties on through the heydays of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues.
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year.
“It never crossed my mind that it might be the last time we’d see each other,” says Staples. “He was so full of life and so happy that week. He was the same old Levon I’d always known, just a beautiful spirit inside and out…
“…we hugged and hugged and hugged. I just held on to him. I didn’t know it’d be the last time, but in my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me because I take him everywhere I go.”
But even aside from that, this is simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. The music, powered by Helm’s and Staples’s combined bands, is compelling, with everyone sounding like they are having a fine old time of it.
The album kicks of with a Curtis Mayfield’s This is My Country, a protest song from 1968, deeply embedded in the Civil Rights movement:
I’ve paid three hundred years or more
Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back
This is my country
Staples sings it with considerable gusto and passion, several years in to the Obama presidency with the right beginning to flex its muscles. More than ten years on, the song still sounds relevant for America – more’s the pity. Musically, as the album’s opener, you know you’re in for a treat, with horns, organ and ooh-ooh-oohs from the backing singers ushering you into things.
Trouble in (My) Mind is a rockin’ version of the old blues standard, Staples’s raw vocals and the bluesy piano driving things along. After This is My Country, this feels like another defiant assertion that no matter how bad things are and might be in America, there are surely better times ahead – “sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day.”
Staples performs Farther Along, an old gospel song, unaccompanied, apart from some gorgeous harmonizing by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams and others. It’s another poignant one, with the lyric “When death has come and taken our loved ones” coming with slow-tempoed clarity.
It’s a song of faith, however, and despite the song musing on loved ones passing while “others prosper, living so wicked year after year,” it asserts “we’ll understand it all by and by.” Staple’s faith led her to comment about Helm, “Some sweet day, we’ll be together again.”
Faith shines out of this album. Nothing frothy or glib; but faith that has been tested and tried and remains defiant. That’s been Mavis Staples’s experience – remember, she was once arrested at gunpoint by the police after a racially charged incident at a gas-station in Memphis and has lived the recent history of black America from the Civil Rights movement on.
The songs, even when packing a punch like Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free, have a positive, upbeat feel, as if the very force of Staples’s faith and positivity would make all the changes she longs for. The horns, harmonies and Mavis’s vocals, combined with the gospel chords, make for a thoroughly uplifting listening experience.
There are a couple of songs regularly performed by Levon Helm, When I Go Away and Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River to Cross have a thoroughly traditional feel about them and fit right in to the set. In the latter, the lyrics seem to have a dual meaning, referring to both the individual journey of life and the struggle for equality that Staples has been engaged in for so long –
I’m only halfway home, I’ve gotta journey on…
I’ve come a long, long road but still I’ve got some miles to go
I’ve got a wide, a wide river to cross.
There’s a great version of You’ve Got to Move. The harmonizing vocals and Larry Campbell’s guitar work is superb and once again the two-sided nature of the lyrics becomes apparent. As a traditional gospel blues song, it’s about the Christian hope of resurrection – “when the Lord get ready, you gotta move,” in, as another song has it, “that great gettin’ up morning.” But whether you’re “high or low”, there’s a hope for the present as well that the Lord might move things in the right direction.
The penultimate song is Bob Dylan’s gospel classic, Gotta Serve Somebody. It’s fitting of course, to include a Dylan song, given Staples’s history with him (she has said Dylan was “the love that I lost”). Staples adds her own faith assertion to the song – he’s (God is) my doctor, he’s my lawyer, he’s my friend.” “Whether you got faith or you got unbelief,” as Dylan might have put it, the song has always been a powerful one, and Staples does it more than justice, making it her own, as she sings convincingly, “I got a royal telephone and the line is never busy.”
Mavis Staples pretty much handles the vocals throughout, with Levon Helm adding colour here and there with harmonies. His drumming, however, is stamped all over things. Helm does weigh in on the final song – fittingly The Weight. Mavis Staples, of course, had shared the vocals with Levon Helm when the Staples Singers accompanied the Band for the song in the Last Waltz in 1968. Staples’s voice is a little deeper and raspier, but it’s still powerful and more than capable of sending shivers down your spine. There’s a quirky, but rather wonderful what sounds to me like a tuba solo in the middle of the song.
This is simply a glorious album of songs to challenge, encourage and inspire. It’s a fine tribute to Levon Helm, and another reminder of the immense talent and force that is Mavis Staples. I saw her perform in London just before the pandemic and it was an evening that left me with a smile on my face for a week afterwards. At 83 she’s on tour again, along with Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, and if they are anywhere near you, don’t hesitate. And get yourself a copy of Carry Me Home – you won’t regret it.