Mavis Staples: An evening’s excursion (I of II)

This evening, quite by chance, I stumbled upon Mavis Staples, specifically, Mavis Staples singing “Hard Times” on Beautiful Dreamer: the Songs of Stephen Foster. And it made me wanna run somewhere, which I couldn’t do at the time so I hopped around my bedroom for a while instead, listening to this wonderful piece of majesty in the truest possible spirit of the gospel tradition (you can listen to a clip here; scroll down a ways). Her voice is so intricately layered and contoured, her control of tonal coloration so careful and yet so gracefully forceful, she demands an emotional accounting from her listeners, who, no matter what we might think of her voice, are left to come to terms with the acutely psychological dimension she brings to the song. At times it seems as if the sheer emotional freight of the music as she has tapped into it may overpower her ability to communicate the reality of what she wants to say and sing. Yet at the same time, her unmistakable mastery of the musical situation is so complete, it’s impossible to doubt the precisely calibrated manner in which she withholds a melodic line for emphasis or extends a lyrical phrase for effect, retreats on a single tone to shade it just so, and then advances on a syllable with the force of thunder.

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