Thursday, March 29, 2012

Too Much Optimism?

From Billboard, Aug. 10, 1968
Over the summer of '68, the Staple Singers left Epic and went to Stax. Quite an epic change, as all of you sure know; Mavis was soon to become independent on the Memphis roster. And nei- ther the Staples nor the people at Stax lost any time to produce new stuff ... and what stuff it was! Perfect almost every note they recorded, the choice of songs very fortunate, many of them with indirect or, more often, explicit political and/or social messages.
Their first Stax LP (STS-2004) was already out in December 1968, produced and engineered by Steve Cropper. It certainly is one of their most memorable Stax albums. Eleven songs, no filler, and much variety, ranging from Otis's »Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay« to »Long Walk To D.C.«.
Stax LP # STS-2004 (1968)
As beautiful as this LP is as strange it is that none of the no less than three 45s (Stax # 007, 019 and 031) which were based on this album (only the B-side of # 007 is not taken from it) did not make any noise chartwise. Hard to understand in retrospect, especially as the LP is basically a showcase for Mavis Staples, her vocal steam engine dominating each and every tune. Were many of its songs too overtly poli- tical? One wouldn't think so, given that the Staples regularly did message songs and had had considerable success with them before ... and the winter of 1968/69 was a troubled time, so political activism in the black music arena should not have deterred potential buyers? I guess the Staples appeared too streamlined or were perceived merely as idealistic soft-core message belters (as indeed many of their songs would suggest to those ill-willing). Trouble times favored radicalism in word and action, not benevolent and potentially quietist optimism, and even though the Staples saw themselves as Soul Folk in Action there might have been too little action, or incitement towards such, in their songs ... half a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King ...

Be that as it may, below you can listen to the one political song of this LP, entitled »I See It«, that did not go down favourably with many Americans. It is telling that this tune was released by Stax in the UK (Stax UK # 118), but not in the U.S. Although the song is, much in the Staples tradition, rather optimistic in outlook, there is a dis- turbing coda which re-creates, even today, the entire tension of the period by its rendering of the Star Spangled Banner. Best I quote here from the Stepfather of Soul page: »I See It finds Mavis and the group imagining a United States free from dis- cord and racism but full of brotherhood and national pride ... as the group goes to the fade the listener is jarred back into "reality" by a very discordant string version of The Star Spangled Banner, under which another violin plays Yankee Doodle. A very odd way to end such a positive tune, to be sure, but it very effectively underscores the problems that lurked underneath the surface in 1968 and still lurk today.« But it's not only about racism and social unrest. Think of the current case of the health care reform which is about to founder. If it does the poor will pay for it ... albeit only metaphorically, because the problem is exactly that they cannot pay ... ah well, no further, it makes me mad.

For good measure, there is a second song as well, Bonnie L. Bramlett's & Carl D. Radle's »We've Got To Get Ourselves Together«, again admirably done by Mavis Staples (did she ever do anything less than admirably?). Would that things work out as imagined by the Staples in 1968 ... usually they haven't, but there's always hope.

The Staple Singers: »I See It« / »We've Got To Get Ourselves Together« from the Stax LP # STS-2004 (1968):

The Staple Singers, from the back cover of Stax # 2004.


  1. I'm so glad that you highlighted this album, because it motivated me to seek it out. I love it! So much Mavis goodness on this LP. Thank you for mentioning it.

  2. You are welcome! Definitely much Mavis goodness (I love that term!) here ...