The Staple Singers’ 1965 Civil Rights masterpiece
by Mike McGonigal
Reading time 23 Minutes
“The whole world is wondering what’s wrong with the United States”
“The whole world is wondering what’s wrong with the United States
Yes, we want peace if it can be found
Marching freedom’s highway”
– Roebuck “Pops” Staples, “Freedom Highway”
If Murder in Mississippi leads to an interest in contemporary art inspired by the struggle for black empowerment, allow us to suggest the Staple Singers’ LP Freedom Highway (Epic). This live 1965 recording might be the single greatest Civil Rights-themed album ever released. And for fifty years, it was abandoned and forgotten.
By now, we all know that gospel music was the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, right? Those documentaries we all like to watch might superimpose “Dancing in the Street” onto footage of kids being sprayed with fire hoses and having dogs set upon them. (And “Dancing” of course is not only a great song but an important one; and those freedom songs have a fascinating history which dovetails perfectly with gospel.) But the true musical accompaniment to black empowerment begins with gospel music, while the black church itself was the primary base for the movement – physically and spiritually.
The Staples were a very popular four-piece family gospel act from Chicago. This blistering live album was recorded at the Staples’ local congregation, Chicago’s New Nazareth Church on April 9,1965 – mere weeks after the end of the marches from Selma, Alabama to that state’s capitol, Montgomery. Abetted here by jazz/blues prodigy Phil Upchurch on bass and frequent Chess Records compatriot Al Duncan on drums, the Staple Singers were led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who sang, played guitar, and wrote and arranged most of their songs.
Three of Roebuck’s kids, including Mavis, the gale-force shouter, join in as they tear through righteous and mournful hymns; rousing traditional gospel numbers; a cover of Hank Williams “The Funeral” which flirts with cheesiness and lands directly on awesomeness; and fired-up freedom songs – one of which, the title tune, had just been written. Add to the mix a full gospel choir led by Caravans founding member Ora Lee Hopkins, and an increasingly enthusiastic crowd who clearly showed up to the recording expecting church. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the march on Selma and in an attempt to piggyback on the success of the film Selma, Freedom Highway was finally reissued in a bloated form in 2015. It didn’t get much coverage, and what attention it did get was accompanied by gross misunderstanding. But what matters of course is that this powerhouse music is available for anyone to hear now – to stream, or play at will. Its power isn’t in its popularity; it’s just there in the grooves, still waiting for you, like a coiled snake.
Pops was born in 1914 near Winona, Mississippi; as a child, he saw Dockery Plantation artists like Muddy Waters and Son House perform at tiny juke joints. After moving to Chicago, he started a family act as soon as his kids, Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne, were able to join in. They played in local churches in the late 1940s, and signed their first contract in the early 1950s. From the start, their music was a strangely ethereal hybrid. Robert Pruter writes in his book Chicago Soul that “Pops is responsible for creating the most original gospel group that emerged from the post-World War II era. He blended the country-blues guitar with Mavis’ deep contralto to create a sound very different from all the other gospel groups of the time.”
The Staples’ music has its feet in both a gritty, down-home past and a minimal, modernist future. The family not only recorded songs by 1920s sanctified blues greats Blind Willie Johnson and Washington Phillips, but Roebuck’s agile, reverb-saturated guitar stinks beautifully of the Delta he grew up in. The stripped-down moaning vocalizations of the family members seem to just float in the air forever. The arrangements are bizarrely spare, yet it’s not like you want them to be anything else. The crazy thing is how fully realized their sound was, even on their first, self-released 78 from 1953.
“There is just one thing I can’t understand, my friend”
“There is just one thing
I can't understand, my friend
Why some folks think freedom
Was not designed for all men”
In 1963 the Staples recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind,” becoming the first black group to cover a song by Bob Dylan. Initially, I found it strange that Dylan had already written a song about Emmett Till’s savage 1955 slaughter, while it wasn’t until 1965 that the Staples themselves wrote any songs specifically related to Civil Rights. But that’s simply because gospel music was already the implicit sound of black protest. Back in the plantation era, African-American slaves communicated sensitive information to each other in codes. Reading and writing were outlawed for the enslaved in the US, underscoring the need for communication through musical modes.
When gospel music as we know it today sprung up around 1920 in Chicago thanks largely to one Thomas A. Dorsey, the music reflected every aspect of black life, not just spiritual, but political and social concerns as well. One of the earliest and most explicitly anti-racist numbers arrived in 1945: “No Restricted Signs Up in Heaven” by the Golden Gate Quartet. The most politically attuned gospel composer was Reverend W. Herbert Brewster, whose “Move On Up a Little Higher” – Mahalia Jackson’s first smash hit – was not just a song about the afterlife but a definite plea, very mildly coded, for African-Americans to wrest more political power.
Mahalia, the Voice, the queen of gospel, was one of Martin Luther King’s earliest supporters. Perhaps her largest impact on American culture occurred when she “opened” for Dr. King at the March on Washington in 1963, singing Brewster’s “How I Got Over.” There it was that Mahalia spurred Dr. King into the extemporaneous part of his speech, when she implored him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Gospel became not just a soundtrack, but a tool for the achievement of justice. It was at the forefront of the movement.
“We met Dr. King in 1963 at Montgomery, Alabama,” Mavis said in an interview with Chicago’s WTTW a few years ago. “We happened to be there; we were working there that night. Pops called us all to his room that Sunday morning and said, ‘I’m going down to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to see Dr. Martin Luther King. I’ve been hearing this man and I want to see him; I want to meet him.’ Dr. King was a young man. Coretta King was singing in the choir; she had a baby in her arms. At the end of the service, Dr. King spoke to Pops. He talked for a while. We got back to the hotel and Pops called us to his room again. He said, ‘Listen you all, I really like this man’s message. And I think if he can preach that, we can sing it.’ And we said, ‘Okay, Daddy.’ So we started writing protest songs. Our purpose was to sing songs that would uplift, to give people a reason to get up in the morning, you know? We sing positive, informative messages.”
Freedom Highway was the Staples’ second album for Epic. Their producer at the time was Billy Sherrill, the same Billy Sherrill who co-wrote and produced Nashville sheen gems like “Stand By Your Man,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” He spoke briefly of the experience in an interview with Mix magazine: “I did the Staple Singers in a Chicago church. This was in the late 1960s, and the riots were going on. Pops Staples was a cool guy. He called and asked when I was coming in. He said, ‘Go straight to the hotel. I’ll pick you up. You’re not riding around Chicago by yourself.’” Larger race riots didn’t actually occur in Chicago until June of 1966, but remembering back 40 years is never easy. And there’s no denying there was a lot of racial tension in the U.S. in 1965.
Sherrill’s work is astounding, a crisp document of a live recording with sound coming from multiple sources. The group’s sound was growing fuller, stronger, and more strident, with Mavis’ belting, gruff voice front and center. Freedom Highway’s highlight, a spiritual tornado of a song, is a four minute version of “We Shall Overcome.” It’s the only song on the record taking full advantage of the Caravans choir. The Staples provide an emotional gateway to this cornerstone song, whose immense power has almost been washed away via anemic repetition over the last 50-plus years.
The songwriting on “We Shall Overcome” is credited to Zilphia Horton, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, and Pete Seeger, four well-meaning white folklorist/singers. Most of the money earned by the song is diverted to a special fund which disperses small grants for cultural expression involving African Americans organizing in the South. In fuller truth, it’s an adaptation of C. A. Tindley’s 1901 gospel hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” and is likely the best known of what were called freedom songs.
The most popular freedom songs were based on gospel songs and hymns. Loosely stated, the older hymns could be said to be affiliated with Dr. King and his national Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organization, while the freedom songs, often composed on the spot at rallies, were part of the younger and more rural movement forming around the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At the time of this recording – after the assassination of JFK and during the ascendancy of the black power and anti-war movements – the SNCC songs began to peel away from King’s message of nonviolence. Numbers like “Burn, Baby, Burn” and “Move On Over or We’ll Move On Over You” became more prevalent. What’s brilliant about the Staples is how they straddle both sides of this divide, smoothly, deliberately.
“[With] the Staples it was this combination of music and message that I call soul and science,” the Reverend Jesse Jackson has said. “And they were talking that relevant talk. You could demonstrate to their music or you could shout; the Staple Singers were unabashedly freedom fighters.” When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the Staples released ‘‘Long Walk to D.C.’’ as a memorial.
“Well, we’re gonna march up freedom’s highway”
“Well, we’re gonna march up freedom's highway
March, each and every day
Made up my mind and I won't turn around”
Despite being at least as excellent as I’ve laid out here, Freedom Highway simply came and went. That’s what happened to gospel records even by the top artists at the time – records that often sold ten times the number of popular jazz titles, releases typically treated far better by labels and fans. A jazz release on a small label might be reviewed in major market newspapers, and fawned over in genre magazines and fanzines. Gospel was rarely written about beyond two sentence reviews in Billboard intended to help a store to order a copy or two. The larger music community seemed immune to the music aside from crossover opportunities. One single Grammy Award for gospel music had been established in 1958, so the gospel community had to create their own music awards system – and that was from the “southern” (white) gospel community. That didn’t even get started until 1969, when the first Dove Awards were handed out.
Freedom Highway probably sold alright upon release, because the Staples made four more albums for Epic, and they promoted it in Billboard. It likely sold nowhere near as well as their 1950s gospel hits for Vee Jay, which were bootlegged repeatedly in the 1960s by labels like Trip and Upfront. To say nothing of their later mammoth pop hits for Stax like 1970’s “Heavy Makes You Happy” or 1971’s “Respect Yourself.” The Staple Singers made a dozen albums in the 1960s, first for the folk/jazz label Riverside, and then for country-pop Epic. Each are worth a listen (even their Christmas record) but none were properly kept in print or reissued. In the CD age, aside from dozens of bootlegs of that haunting Vee Jay material, their music was disrespected at best. A CD called Freedom Highway was issued in 1991, but only two songs from the actual Freedom Highway release were included on the friggin’ thing. It’s safe to say that white rock artists received far better treatment from Epic Records. Gospel artists have never been treated well by the record industry, even ones who made them money.
As a fan, I was naturally very stoked to hear Freedom Highway was finally being reissued in 2015 – in an expanded edition, twice as long as the original, with extra songs and all of the sermon elements that didn’t fit the original single release’s running time. Liner notes were even written by celebrated music writer Robert Gordon. On Freedom Highway Complete (Sony Legacy) we can now hear pastor Rev. Hopkins ironically admonish the parishioners for not coughing up enough dough on the collection plate; it’s hard to not like that. And I am beyond happy that the raucous midtempo “Help Me Jesus” is twice as long as it used to be. But the original album, which did have bits of between-song banter, makes for a far better actual listen. The right choices were made 54 years ago; they knew what they were doing.
Music review website Pitchfork gave the reissue an 8.7 out of ten, earning it the coveted “best new reissue” status, which is cool. But writer Stephen Deusner erroneously writes that the album “was the family’s biggest hit to date.” That’s utter bullshit. Stranger still, the reviewer states that the album is “a pivotal record that inched them toward the pop mainstream without sacrificing their gospel message for a secular audience,” but... the fucking thing was recorded live in a church. The writer also says that Freedom Highway “proves a pivotal event not just for the family, but for pop music in general – just as crucial as anything that happened at Woodstock or Monterey, albeit not as storied or as celebrated,” which clearly underscores the need for a better understanding of gospel music, and what its role is. Music in general? This is an amazing record, but its obscurity is the story here, not how it was bigger than the Beatles.
Freedom Highway might “rock hard” and it might have lots of “soul,” but it’s not a rock or a soul album, it’s a live gospel record made in a Chicago church by Chicago’s greatest family gospel band. Even the grandest crossover number, the Edwin Hawkin Singers’ mammoth “Oh Happy Day,” didn’t change much of anything; it just made sure that cheesey ignorant rich rock ‘n’ roll motherfuckers would put large choirs on their records when they wanted to make their most Important Statements.
Then the normally sane music writer Ed Ward had nice things to say about the reissue, even actually calling it “impossible to find until this year.” But how could Ward say the band chose to “share some songs about the freedom struggle, not a universally popular topic with the congregation,” when on the actual recording the audience is losing it for the freedom songs? And when New Nazareth was, and is, a black Baptist church. Baptist ministers were the main force behind the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led for eleven years. Black Baptist churches were targets of white violence, and it was often the black Baptists who staged sit-ins, ran voter registration efforts, and marched in protests.
I wanted – I want – the New York Times and New Yorker to devote entire pages to the reissue of Freedom Highway, for it to finally take its rightful place at the top of every list of great live records, great concept albums, of art about the black struggle, of long-players from 1965, of groups whose names begin with the letter “S.” But even though the Staple Singers gained notoriety in the 1970s for their secularized gospel funk, Freedom Highway is a gospel record, and most Americans could give a single fuck about a gospel record. This might have changed in 2019 a little bit – after all, Kanye cut a gospel record and if you saw that creepy footage of his Sunday services at Coachella where the God in question might as well have been Kanye as easily as Yahweh, I guess we can count our blessings that the music is if not underground then existing in its own parallel world. It is a multi-million dollar industry, of course. So I’ll just enjoy the album myself, then, right now staring at the original artwork as it plays. Look here, how the American flag's field of stars is replaced by a painting of the Staples lost in song – the old familiar white stars replaced, for once, by these glorious black ones.
Mike McGonigal is a writer, editor, and music reissue producer based in Detroit, Michigan. His radio program 'Buked and Scorned: The Gospel Radio Hour airs every Sunday on XRAYFM in Portland, Oregon and on CJAM in Windsor/Detroit. McGonigal's hairy, seven year-old rescue mutt Clayton ensures that he leaves the house at least a few times a day.