Loosehandlebars’ Cool Chicks For Black History Month

 

Zora Neale Hurston   January 7 1891 – January 28 1960

 

“I love myself when I am laughing. . . and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.”…now that’s a long but irresistible title for a book. In 1975, 7 years before “The Color Purple” made her name, Alice Walker wrote “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” for Ms magazine. In 1979 she edited an anthology of Hurston’s work & blessed it with this eye-catching tongue-twister of a title. It’s a selection of autobiography, fiction & folklore from between 1920 & 1950, writing of great energy, individuality & integrity. Who the heck was Zora Neale Hurston ? Where had she been all my life ?

 

Zora is connected to the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American blossoming of culture, philosophy & politics in the years between the World Wars, between days of slavery & the change that gonna come. By the time she arrived on this vibrant scene in 1925, as the sole black student at Barnard College, she had seen & done some things for herself. Raised in Eatonville Florida, one of the first self-governing all black municipalities in the USA, her experience of self-determination, independent of white society, influenced her strongly held views which often found her at at odds with her contemporaries. Aged 26 Zora, in order to finish high school before enrolling in college, adjusted her age down by 10 years. With those cheekbones it seems that she got away with it.

 

Her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942) took liberties with the truth too but is an individual, funny, poignant story, Apparently Zora was quite something back in the day. You don’t hear the word “sassy” much today, “when Zora was there, she was the party.”, her spirit & her intellect show in her writing. As an anthropologist she studied obeah in Jamaica, voodoo in Haiti, the stories of the South in the US. The best known of her 4 novels, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) makes use of a vernacular which can look awkward today, the story of Janie Crawford, a woman finding her own voice at a time when people didn’t want to hear it, abides as a story that we should know.

 

Zora spent her later years back in Florida, in bad health, working as a maid, dying in poverty. She remains significant & to be celebrated in her own write, as an influence & inspiration to those who followed, preparing the way for Toni Morrison, the blessed Maya & others. Alice Walker, posing as a niece (Zora would have approved), located the unmarked grave in Fort Pierce & placed a headstone inscribed “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South” Amen !

 

“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

 

Mavis Staples   July 10, 1939

 

From all the great voices I could have chosen Billie Holiday, Nina Simone (Gigi Mac beat me to it !) or Aretha Franklin. The word “underrated” is banned at this blog, none of the people I choose to celebrate are overlooked round our house. Mavis Staples is there in the pantheon of with all those women singers who made living in the 20th century better than it could have been.

 

Of course we are not the only ones to hold Mavis in such high regard. Her last 3 records (there’s a new one I’ve yet to investigate) were produced by Ry Cooder & Jeff Tweedy. In the late 1980s she was signed to Paisley Park records by Prince. Her group, the Staple Singers are featured singing “The Weight” in the Band’s movie “The Last Waltz”. Then there was her friendship with Bob Dylan who, back in the day, asked her father if he could marry his young, beautiful daughter. You may not have heard Mavis sing in 1963 but she was as fresh & joyous as this photograph. What’s not to love ?

 

Patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples led his family on quite a journey in the 1960s. Mavis had been singing with her siblings since she was 11 years old & their gospel-folk sound found them work beyond the parochial church circuit. Pops had a good ear, just as the mystery of “Uncloudy Day” impressed Dylan the Staple Singers recorded “Blowing in the Wind” & then Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With”. His friendship with Martin Luther King led to songs of freedom & redemption. The first LP released on signing to Stax Records in 1968 was titled “Soul Folk in Action”. Stax had an eye on making a star out of Mavis, there were solo records, a double LP of duets but the family ties that bind were stronger than the lure of putting herself out there.

 

And she was right. By 1971 the Staples Singers were ready for their close-up. Wattstax, Soul Train, the toppermost of the poppermost. In a Golden Age of Soul Music Pops & his young, gifted & black daughters, Cleotha, Yvonne & Mavis, didn’t say it loud, they stated their case clearly, considerately & consciously.”Respect Yourself”, “I’ll Take You There”, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” & many others, music for the head & heart. At the centre was lead singer Mavis, soulful, spiritual & gorgeous, taking us to church, keeping us on the right path. When Curtis Mayfield wanted to record the more secular “Let’s Do It Again” with the group Pops had some reservations. Praise be to your chosen deity that the record exists.Here’s another good one…”got to get up as soon as you get down”.

 

 

Mavis is 76 now, so lovely, still performing & a legend. Her work with Jeff Tweedy rewards a listen & she is by no means on the golden oldie circuit. Those images of her, with her sisters, are exalting & exhilarating. The message, “Respect Yourself” keeps on keeping on

 

“I’m singing these songs to inspire you, to keep you going, to lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning.”

 

 

Bessie “BB” Stringfield. 1911-1993

 

Born in Kingston Jamaica, moved to Boston but orphaned at 5 years old, Bessie Stringfield was given her first motorcycle, an Indian, by her adoptive mother when she was 16. Before she was out of her teens she had developed a taste for Harley Davidsons, was looking for adventure & hoped to find it on the road. She began the first of 8 trips across the USA, crossing 48 states. Can you imagine what it was like for a young woman travelling solo on a hog in 1930s America ? You can try but you won’t get near to the stories that Bessie could have told us.

 

Often there was no place for her to sleep out in the Wild West & the segregated South. With her jacket across the handlebars as a pillow she would spend the night with her bike. To make a few bucks she entered hill-climbing races, performed stunts & acrobatics at carnivals & fairs. In World War II she served as a civilian courier for the US Army for 4 years, crossing the country on her blue Harley. After the war she settled in Florida, becoming known as “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami”, founding the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club while working as a nurse, acknowledged as a “Hero of Harley Davidson” & riding to the end of her life. Bessie Stringfield’s  unlikely & audacious experiences would make a great fictional character. She was for real & she rocked.

“I was somethin’.

 

 

I Was Not Singing The Devil’s Music, The Devil Ain’t Got No Music (Mavis Staples)

There is a new record by Mavis Staples released today (June 25th). “One True Vine” is a 2nd collaboration with Jeff Tweedy off  of Wilco, the best band in the USA. Like 2010’s “You Are Not Alone” the song selection is marked by taste of the highest order. This time there are 3 songs by Tweedy, covers of both Low & Nick Lowe & some re-imagined soul & gospel classics.

“I Like The Things About Me” is a song co-written by Pops Staples & was originally sung by the Staples’ patriarch. This time around Mavis takes the lead & the chiming guitar is replaced by a fuzzy bass line. The LP was recorded at Wilco’s Chicago studio & Tweedy plays almost all the instruments, leaving the drums to his son Spencer. Ms Staples made a record with Ry Cooder in 2007 which showed her passion & authority to be undiminished. “We’ll Never Turn Back” is a polished, assured take on some well-known songs. J.B. Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi” becomes, through her voice, the most accurate comment on the institutionalised racism of the US Government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

Any of the adjectives used about “We’ll Never…” are going to be good ones but it becomes a little worthy or formulaic if it is repeated. Mavis is an icon but is not ready for a museum yet. The records Mavis Staples is making with Jeff Tweedy show imagination in the song choice & their arrangements. Whatever Mavis sings is going to sound great but she is not a soul belter. Pops knew that she resonated most when space was left & Tweedy is the very man for the job. This is not music that seeks your immediate attention but slides soothingly under your skin.

Well, what a great call to record “Can You Get To That” from Funkadelic’s 3rd momentous LP “Maggot Brain”. A gospel inflected song of affirmation, maybe Mavis & her family group should have gotten hold of this George Clinton jam back in 1971. It is a song written for a gang of voices &, on this TV appearance, Mavis gives it up to her fellow singers which is precisely what is required. “Can You Get To That” is just one of my favourite  songs from the P-Funk, a last tip back to the Parliaments & the  sixties before getting on with the very modern things they had to do. To hear this revival by Mavis just cheer me no end…my song of the next few weeks.

Mavis & Jeff Tweedy did a similar thing last time around when another of the long-time, all-time jewels was given the treatment.

Mavis Staples is 74 next month & I hope that there will be a bunch more of these records to appreciate. There will always be a religious element in any of her LPs, it is what she has been doing for over 60 years & it is what she does better than anyone else. Jeff Tweedy is proving to be  a sympathetic & subtle partner who is helping Mavis to make this lovely modern, mature music.The 2010 record was awarded the Grammy for the Best Americana Record. It was her first such award, “It;s been a long time coming” said a tearful Mavis. This time she may not be so shocked.

I’m not trying to tell you how to do it I’m only saying put some thought into it (Staple Singers)

The early 1970s was a momentous time for African-American music as the soul stars of the previous decade confidently articulated the challenges facing the US after the tumult of the previous decade. They did so by experimenting, pushing & shoving the sound that took their message around the world to see where they were coming from, what’s going on & what’s happening brother. The Psychedelic Soul of  Funkadelic & Sly Stone freed our minds while our asses followed  the sweaty funk of Isaac Hayes & the Isley Brothers. Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye ? Well, the Motown masters just picked up the title belt dropped by the Beatles & produced the best music you could wish to hear.

Included in that group of  Funk Soul Brothers, from a time of conspicuous fashion, hairstyles & drug use, is an avuncular man who was already in his late-50s when his music took up residence in the US R&B charts. His understated & wonderful guitar playing accompanied the harmonies of his 3 beautiful daughters on some of the sweetest funk, songs of life-affirming positivity. Man, “Pops” Staples & the Staple Singers were really saying something back then.

WELL ! Don’t read this…watch that ! In May 1972 this call & response beauty was the #1 hit in America. Written & produced by Al Bell, the co-owner of Stax Records,  created with the array of talent at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, “I’ll  Take You There” is popular music as Art. I am proud to be a member of the species that can achieve something so radiant…really.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples had a preacherly air about him &, of course, the Staple Singers could only have developed in the church. They were a successful Gospel-Folk act with an eye and an ear on the changing world. They recorded “Blowing In the Wind” just after Peter,Paul & Mary. They were on Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” in 1967 when their label Epic tried to change it up a little. The family group stayed with Gospel longer than many of their contemporaries. Even when they signed with Stax the music was, at first, clumsily tagged “Soul Folk”. It was in 1970 when brother Purvis left the group & sister Yvonne joined Cleotha & Mavis. The  move was made to Funky Street & boy, was the world ready for the Staple Singers.

Pops was a friend of Dr King during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s & his group now sang a message of self-empowerment.  “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Dr King said that. The Staple Singers spread the word by way of an unhurried insistent groove. Pops’ guitar had hints of his Mississippi upbringing but, he contended, he did not play the Blues. His talented daughters perfectly linked the rhythm & the rhyme. Aretha was still the Queen but Mavis Staples was a stunning new Soul Princess.

“We The People” is from the first LP produced by Al Bell. It is a personal favourite but there are so many tunes that were so perfectly Staplified at this time. I have left “Respect Yourself” off of this but if you really do only know the Bruce Willis version then get ye to the Y-tube right now ! In 1975 the group hooked up with fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield, another musician who had mastered the shift from spiritual to secular. Pops was reluctant to let his girls sing the more sensual lyrics of “Let’s Do It Again”, the title track of the soundtrack LP they recorded. On his 61st birthday the record (a pretty damn lubricious one) was #1 in the US charts.

Some of the Staples’ songs are less successful because the insistence on a positive message could lead to simplification. While Curtis sang “If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go)” the Staple Singers counselled “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend”. It was though, a memo that needed to be sent. Black Pride had to be about more than confrontation with white society. Anyway, these were the radio-friendly singles, on the LPs there are still songs of protest & anger when the group shows that they still know the score.

“When Will We Paid” is a litany of the sufferings & the contribution made by Black people in America. It is a sophisticated & dignified demand for recognition & reparation which never fails to affect me. This clip is taken from “Soul to Soul” a film of a concert held in Accra, Ghana in 1971 when a raft of black American acts went back to Africa. In the 1980s I worked with a wonderful Ghanaian man, Emmanuel. Manny had attended this concert, it was a very big deal in Accra. I spent more than a few lunch breaks when I asked him about the time he saw the Staple Singers play & just let him tell his stories. Good memories for both of us.

(Just a sidebar here. In “I’ll Take You There” when Mavis entreats “Daddy…” to do his thing it is not Pop who plays the guitar solo but the Muscle Shoals session dude Eddie Hinton. If you don’t know too much about this talented but troubled man then click here. He made some great music.)