Hope in hard times

By Sergio Ariza

If All I Was Was Black is the third collaboration between the legendary soul/gospel singer Mavis Staples and the leader of Wilco, Jeff Tweedy. It is the first time that Tweedy has taken responsibility for composing all the material (although on three of the tracks with the help of Staples herself), but it seems clear that he has done it with the singer in mind. Both the music and the lyrics fit like a hand in a glove to the veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who is now nearly 80, in such a way that she takes control of the material as soon as she starts to sing with her powerful voice.  

It is clear that Staples and Tweedy are not happy with everything that has happened in the USA since the arrival of Trump at the White House, but instead of opting for anger and desperation, they try to seek the sunbeam in the storm; demonstrating the optimism of someone who has seen much worse times. Tweedy has taken responsibility for the production and has brought in his son Spencer, as well as the drummer from Wilco, Glen Kotchke; but it is Staples’ loyal guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, who stands out from the other musicians who particated on the project.


The album starts on a high with Little Bit, a song that feels like it has just emerged from the Stax studios at the start of the 70s and that has two magnificent guitarists who cut like knives over a funk/soul baseline, which provides the perfect groove to the album. Lyrically it advances a number of other themes on the record like, for example, the issue of fear in black neighbourhoods when the inhabitants are faced with police violence that has been totally normalized.    

Who Told You That
is built on a funky riff, very much of the 70s, with work on the guitar that surely would make Pops Staples happy. Holmstrom and his Telecaster confirm themselves as the perfect supports for Staples’ voice and Tweedy’s songs. For its part, the title song is one of the three on which Staples has helped with Tweedy’s compositions; it is another call to harmony, a song against acquired prejudices.  


On Build a Bridge Staples’ powerful voice is complemented by a beautiful accompaniment on the guitar most associated with soul, a Telecaster; which sounds half-way between Steve Cropper and Pops Staples, Mavis’s father, as well as the Jazzmaster of Tweedy himself. The song also has some incredible voices in falsetto that give tone to the song and serve as a contrast to Mavis’s vigorous and deep voice. The song also provides a ‘favourable voice’ to 'Black Lives Matter', the movement that can be seen as a successor to the Civil Rights Movement in which Staples was so involved in the 60s, when she participated in the Million Man March at the side of Martin Luther King.

Staples has considerable experience singing these types of ‘songs with a message’ - as part of the family group the Staples Singers - so this album sees her returning to what she knows best, interpreting with conviction a message in which she believes firmly, with the best funk/soul aroma of the mid-70s. Perhaps this period in history will see violence and hatefulness return again, but Staples knows better than anybody how to preach hope in turbulent times.