She Shall Overcome: Staples does right by familiar spirituals.

On her latest album, We’ll Never Turn Back, Mavis Staples re-­interprets message songs, spirituals, and hymns. It’s the singer’s way of paying tribute to the people at the center of the Civil Rights Movement and inspiring others to continue their work. In other words, it has high potential to become a well-intentioned disaster. Such lofty social ambitions are beautiful and noble, but message music is often strong in purpose only—think “We Are the World,” A Very Special Christmas compilations, or any benefit concert. In the liner notes, Staples says she wants to convey the same feeling, spirit, and message that her family group, the Staple Singers, did during the ’60s. The group, which started as a folk-tinged gospel outfit, switched to blues-and-funk-steeped freedom music following two events: Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Pops Staples decided “if he can preach it, we can sing it,” and, in 1968, the group moved from Epic to Stax, where they got to work with the label’s famed house band. Their work from that era is a rare example of music as relevant to the political landscape as to the cultural-artistic one. Staples scraps any notion that We’ll Never Turn Back is substantial in mission only with her version of “This Little Light of Mine.” Co-opted by folk singers and candlelight vigil organizers, the tune now possesses more schlock value than any other in the spiritual canon. Yet Staples keeps the melody low and steady, cuts the “let it shine” refrain, omits the highest notes, and otherwise strips away all preciousness. Producer Ry Cooder coats the song in blue guitar notes, giving a Delta feel far removed from the tune’s children’s-hymn roots. Along with Cooder and, of course, Staples herself, Anti- head Andy Kaulkin gets credit for the idea of an album of movement songs. By giving a home to Staples, Solomon Burke, and Bettye LaVette, Kaulkin is becoming to ’60s soul singers looking for a fresh but familiar version of their best work what Lou Pearlman was to boy-band wannabes. Also crucial to the sound are Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members Rutha Harris, Charles Neblett, and Bettie-Mae Fikes—former SNCC Freedom Singers who provide background vocals. The civil rights anthems “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” also receive makeovers, and again Staples ignores all but the most basic elements of the originals’ vocal scheme. Cooder follows her lead, taking the bones of the melody and forcing them to bend in any direction he pleases. The reworkings are never disrespectful or fundamentally untrue to the traditional music—they’re refurbished and shored up, but their soul is left intact.