The Mystery

One night I was lying in bed and listening to the radio. I think it was a station out of Shreveport, Louisiana. I wasn’t sure where Louisiana was either. I remember listening to the Staple Singers’ “Uncloudy Day.” And it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in. I heard it again, maybe the next night, and its mystery had even deepened. What was that? How do you make that? It just went through me like my body was invisible. What is that? A tremolo guitar? What’s a tremolo guitar? I had no idea, I’d never seen one. And what kind of clapping is that? And that singer is pulling things out of mythem soul that I never knew were there. After hearing “Uncloudy Day” for the second time, I don’t think I could even sleep that night. I knew these Staple Singers were different than any other gospel group. But who were they anyway?

I’d think about them even at my school desk. I managed to get down to the Twin Cities and get my hands on an LP of the Staple Singers, and one of the songs on it was “Uncloudy Day.” And I’m like, “Man!” I looked at the cover and studied it, like people used to do with covers of records. I knew who Mavis was without having to be told. I knew it was she who was singing the lead part. I knew who Pops was. All the information was on the back of the record. Not much, but enough to let me in just a little ways. Mavis looked to be about the same age as me in her picture. Her singing just knocked me out. I listened to the Staple Singers a lot. Certainly more than any other gospel group. I like spiritual songs. They struck me as truthful and serious. They brought me down to earth and they lifted me up all in the same moment. And Mavis was a great singer—deep and mysterious. And even at the young age, I felt that life itself was a mystery.

Bob Dylan

One day after Bobby and I had just met, my father and I were standing in line to get lunch, and from way in the back of the line, Bobby yelled, “Pops, I want to marry Mavis.” And Pops yelled back, “Don’t tell me, tell Mavis.”

We went on into our 20s, and it was my fault that it stopped. I was so young I thought Dr. King might not like that, me marrying a white man. Later on, Pops told me that was foolish. He said, “Haven’t you been listening to what that Dylan kid is saying—’How many roads must a man walk down.’ Don’t you see all the white people marching with us?”

I often wonder if we’d gotten together and had some kids. They’d be some poetry-writing, singing kids, wouldn’t they?

Mavis Staples


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When I Worked

March 2015
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