While I am all health, all-the-time when I’m at the annual South-by-Southwest meet-up in Austin, I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of the documentary, Mavis! (exclamation point included and appropriate, given the energy and joy in the title’s subject).
“Mavis” is Mavis Staples, who you should know for her music, as singer with her family’s group, The Staple Singers; and, for as a positive force for good. In fact, she’s a lesson in whole health, which is why I’m writing about here on Health Populi which is dedicated to health where we live, work, play, pray…and sing. For Mavis Staples, life is about all those things.
The story starts with prayer, with spirituality, with fun, and with family, and these themes were part of how Roebuck “Pops” and Oceola Staples raised their three daughters and one son in Chicago. It was in church where fellow worshipers told Pops that Mavis’s and her siblings’ voices were something special, and the kids’ harmonies something to behold. So he recorded his family in song, and the rest is history.
That history spans the story of gospel music in America, and continues into the Civil Rights Movement during which Martin Luther King, Jr., befriended the family and their music’s message of unity, positivity, and respect for one another. The Staple Singers’ song Why Am I Treated So Bad was one of Dr. King’s favorites.
Over several decades, The Staples Singers traveled the world spreading their message of unity, peace, and self-respect — embodied in the great song, Respect Yourself, which many of us growing up in the early 1970s can still coin the best lyric: if you don’t respect yourself, ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot.
So what of health? Well, Mavis made a special appearance following the screening, with the accomplished director Jessica Edwards, the long-time Staples Singers’ guitarist Rick Holmstrom, and members of the film’s production team. After a delightful, insightful and joyful round of Q&A (covering a wide range of questions about Mavis’s fashion sense and hairstyles through the ages, her mom, the backbone of the family, and how Bob Dylan and she crushed on each other – a major and wondrous revelation to some of us in the audience), Mavis and Rick performed two glorious songs, live, pictured here in-the-moment from the Paramount Theatre. Mavis rocked the house, donned in blue jeans, a cool chestnut brown leather jacket, and of course, a chic slick wig (which she told us is her hairstyle of choice these days).
Mavis is now 75, and touring with the band and with her sister Yvonne (who is 3 years Mavis’s senior). Pops lived to 2000, seeing his family inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He played music almost to the end of his life – passing away at the ripe age of 86. At this life expectancy table illustrates, being born as a black male in 1914, Pops would have been expected to live until he turned 37 years of age. That he lived nearly 50 years past that actuarial forecast? That’s genetic magic, coupled with living a positive life filled with love, music, and a lot of adventure.
Health Populi’s Hot Points: “If music be the food of love, play on,” Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night. It’s clear from Mavis’s testimony in Jessica Edward’s beautiful documentary that music is also the food of life. There’s growing evidence of the role that music can play in memory, in stress reduction, reducing anxiety, in pain management, among other therapeutic uses.
The proof is in Mavis and Yvonne, and the proof is in Pops, whose legacy lives on. On February 17, 2015, Pops Staples record, Don’t Lose This, was published. Pops’ tapes were remastered by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a long-time family friend of the family. Here’s what NPR had to say about the album, which has received rave reviews.
As will Mavis! the movie. Experience Mavis Staples, get joyful, get happy, get healthy. Oh — and don’t forget to Respect Yourself and Touch a Hand (Make a Friend).