When Mavis Staples comes on the line from Rhode Island, it's a quiet afternoon between shows on her fall concert tour, and I wonder if the venerable singer shouldn't be resting her voice, the way others do between demanding performances. "Oh, they try to keep me quiet!" she says in feisty, gravelly tones laced with mischief, "but I just can't help it. I'm nosy and I'm noisy. I have my hot tea and honey and I'm fine. I've come a long way, I've got too much to say!"
Staples, 76, has been delivering a message for more than six decades – with a voice Chuck D calls "gospel rough" – and many of those years with family members in the Staple Singers. Theirs is the righteous soundtrack of the civil-rights era and beyond. Mavis's father, Roebuck (Pops) Staples, was born on a cotton plantation and fused Mississippi Delta blues, gospel and spirituals into such crossover R&B hits as I'll Take You There and Let's Do It Again. The group also shared a vision and a bond with Martin Luther King Jr. and helped spread the era's message of equality by performing on the Southern circuit of the 1950s and 60s, with distinct vocal harmonies that influenced a wide range of performers, from the Band to Bonnie Raitt.
As Jessica Edwards's new documentary Mavis! shows, Staples is still recording (her album You Are Not Alone won a Grammy in 2011) and touring; every performance includes a selection of civil-rights anthems such as Freedom Highway or Reach Out, Touch a Hand.
"I leave at least two or three in just about every concert we do because they're still relevant and still needed," Staples says. The repertoire includes the stalwart Why Am I Treated So Bad?, one of King's favourite songs, the one he'd ask Pops to make sure the family performed. Her father wrote it about the Little Rock Nine and desegregation, but she says it has relevance to current events, such as Ferguson.
"I think about things that are happening now, and things that were happening then," Staples says of what goes through her mind on stage when she sings the track now. "All of that comes in my head, it's like a movie. Those kids walking to school and being harassed and spat upon and stones thrown at them, and then I think about Ferguson, Missouri, and how black young men are being treated today. I feel like sometimes I'm still living in the sixties; it just looks so familiar.
"I never thought I would live to see the day where a black man was in the White House. That means so much to me. But I" – and Staples's voice cracks – "hurt, it hurts me so bad, that he is treated the way he is treated."
As inspiring as the classic anthems are, they do take a toll. "I've been making people cry for years," Staples continues, "and this album I just finished, I told the songwriters I wanted something joyful, some uplifting songs that would bring joy to people and make them smile rather than cry."
It's that capacity for inspiring passion, whether it's infectious indignation or hope, that the film's Canadian director Edwards talked to me about when Mavis! premiered at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival this past spring. "That was very much the catalyst for me exploring her life a little bit more – the way she made me feel," Edwards said of her first Staples concert experience.
"For me, her story isn't historical, even though it's got the super-rich history and so many things about her life that are fascinating, heartbreaking and cool," Edwards added. "The way that I wanted to come into the film is that she's not only a performer from back then, she's actually very now."
Staples has collaborated with numerous producers, biographers and musicians (from Prince to Ry Cooder to Jeff Tweedy) and jokes that she may have told long-time friend Greg Kot "too much" as the music journalist wrote the 2014 biography of Staples and her family; likewise, Edwards's camera. Perhaps that smooch with Bob Dylan at the Newport Festival, for example? Staples deploys another coy, husky laugh. As the story goes, young Dylan was enamoured of young Mavis – and he hints at that much himself in the documentary, in interview footage that's never been seen before.
In addition to Edwards's documentary, a comprehensive box set of Staple Singers material (including two rare early recordings from 1953 that were long thought lost) is out this month. Staples says she only vaguely recalls recording the songs in a family friend's basement near their South Side Chicago home. And before the documentary, she hadn't seen much of its archival material and Super 8 footage in more than 50 years – if she'd seen it at all. Her gaze is directed ahead, not back over her shoulder.
"You know," she admits, "I wish I'd kept a diary – but I was too busy having fun!" Mavis! – never has such enthusiastic punctuation been so deserved.