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Mavis Staples is Awarded The Woody Guthrie Prize at LA’s GRAMMY Museum

Mavis-Staples-Photo © Donna Balancia

Mavis Staples performs at GRAMMY Museum – Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

By DONNA BALANCIA — Mavis Staples was awarded the Woody Guthrie Prize at the GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday night.

Among those on hand for the prestigious event were Bob Santelli GRAMMY Museum executive director, and Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.

“Music can be a great tool for social justice,” McCloud said. “We want to change lives and change the world. In this country our history isn’t necessarily pretty but we’re looking for ways to do better.”

Megan Ochs, the daughter of Phil Ochs, accepted the Woody Guthrie Legacy Award on behalf of her father.

“As  patriot it’s not only the right but the responsibility to challenge the government,” Ochs said. “My father found a way to interpret political times through music.”

Staples said she was honored to receive the Woody Guthrie Prize, particularly since The Staples Singers — comprised of patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Cleotha, Mavis and Pervis Staples — always loved Guthrie’s songs.

Mavis-Staples-Photo © Donna Balancia

Mavis Staples performs at GRAMMY Museum – Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

“I was a teenager when I heard Peter, Paul and Mary sing “This Land Is Your Land,” and we loved the song so much that we recorded it.”

The lively leader of The Staples Singers, Mavis gave an audience of GRAMMY members and guests insights into her inspiration to sing and record freedom songs.

The Staples Singers had a history of gospel, but it was during the time of the preachings of Dr. Martin Luther King that they found their calling.

She said until the Staples Singers came along, gospel had not previously been blended with blues and it was something that made her family unique — even though their sound was met with a degree of resistance.

Staples said some things have improved, compared to the day and age in which she was raised.  She said her father was 18 and her mother was 16 when they married and that her father was proud of her mother’s cooking.

“My father would invite people over for dinner,” she said. “Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson… Ray tried my mother’s Sweet Potato Pie and said, ‘We should franchise,'” she recalled. “We could make big ones, little ones,'” she recalled. ”  My father would bring sweet potato pie to the disc jockeys,” she said. “They would say, The Staples Singers don’t need payola, they have ‘Pie-ola.”‘

Mavis-Staples-Photo © Donna Balancia

Mavis Staples discusses civil rights at GRAMMY MUSEUM -Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

Staples said she was influenced by Guthrie and a host of artists like Joni Mitchell and others who used the guitar.  She told her father she wanted to learn the guitar.

“Pops had me cut my fingernails,” she said. “He gave me three lessons it was too much for him, I wasn’t learning fast enough. I wanted to pick I wanted to strum.”

Staples said she was flattered to be included in the Martin Scorsese film, The Last Waltz.  By the time the film was actually going into production, she had formed a strong bond with Levon Helm and The Band as well as Bob Dylan.  She said Dylan was always close to her brother Pervis.

Pervis is living in their parents’ house in Dalton, Ill., and he’s doing well, Staples said.

“He’s still frisky at 80,” she said. “He thinks he’s a player.”

As far as finding their successful niche, Staples said it was the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King that influenced the Staples Singers.

“Pops had been hearing Martin Luther King on the radio and said he has a church and he would like to go to the 11 o’clock service,” Staples recalled. “We were ushered in and greeted by Dr. King who said he was glad to have Pops and the Staples.  After service, Dr. King used to shake hands. Pops shook hands and spoke to Dr. King for a while.  When we got home Pops called us in and said listen, y’all, if Dr. King can preach it, we can sing it.”

Staples said she was disappointed there aren’t more singers singing songs of freedom today and said she remains hopeful someone would come forth.

Staples sang a selection of songs and closed out the night with the GRAMMY-winning 1972 hit “I’ll Take You There,” which she said was initially scorned in the church because of its rythmn.

Mavis-Staples-Photo © Donna Balancia

Mavis Staples and GRAMMY Museum’s Bob Santelli discuss her Woody Guthrie Prize – Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

“They said it was Devil’s music,” she recalled. “I said, ‘The devil ain’t got no music, all music is God’s music.'”

Eventually, when she proved her point and was asked back to the church, she said the first request was “I’ll Take You There.”

Staples said she has felt fortunate to have worked with some of the top names in music.

She joked that after seeing all the memorabiliia in the GRAMMY Museum that’s devoted to Taylor Swift, she decided she would like to sing a duet with the young songstress.  “I would make more friends I think.”

In addition to collaborating with some of the greats, including Ry Cooder, and Curtis Mayfield, Staples said she enjoyed her recent work with Bruce Hornsby and Galactic.  The work won’t stop, she said.

“I’m not retiring as long as I have a voice,” she said.

And the best advice she ever received?  She said it was from her father.

“He said, ‘Sing from your heart, be sincere,” she said. “He said, if you’re singing from your heart, you’ll reach the people.'”

Tom Morello Tears Down ‘Velvet Rope’ for Social Justice with Jackson Browne

Tom Morello photo by Donna Balancia

Tom Morello photo © 2015 Donna Balancia


HOLLYWOOD — With veteran rockers like David Crosby and Graham Nash and Jackson Browne, and up-and-comers like La Santa Cecilia and Rocky Dawuni, The Concert For Social Justice was one of the most inspiring concerts of the year.

It wasn’t the encore of “This Land Is Your Land,” that did it, although a concert finale that gathers Melissa Etheridge, Tom Morello and a bevy of actors and audience members to sing a well-known second-grade song is rousing.

The Concert For Social Justice at The Fonda Theatre last Wednesday night brought together a diverse group of people who want to deliver the message through song.  And it’s inspiring that singing out a message isn’t banned in our country yet. 

Jackson Browne - photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

Jackson Browne – photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

After all, as our First Amendment rights and every day habits are being taken away by corporate greed and government mismanagement, it’s amazing we are allowed to gather and sing about pretty much whatever we want.  We still have that.

It’s rewarding to know how many people donate their time for a cause.  Billy Ray Cyrus, Martin Sheen, Chad Lowe, Alfre Woodard were among the actors who participated in the show.  The show was produced by RFK Human Rights and The GRAMMY Museum.

Both are both super organizations that do plenty for others, like putting on this concert that benefits the organizations’ joint K-12 education program, Speak Up Sing Out: Songs of Conscience.  The program invites middle-school and high-school students to write songs about social justice issues.

Melissa Etheridge - Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

Melissa Etheridge – Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

And of course, the fans and VIPs who packed The Fonda Theatre and for the most part, it was a nice-looking group of well-heeled Californians.

And to have The Fonda Theatre on a Wednesday night is great, but remember, at the Fonda, you “can’t go in and out,” of the front entrance.  Even if you leave your cell phone in the taxi.  But that’s another story.

The audience was comprised mostly of those who were just old enough to go to the record store and buy Crosby Still Nash and Young’s Deja Vu album.  And since 1970, the year the album was released, many things have changed.  For one thing, while amply capable, the once-foursome is now most often Crosby and songwriter Nash who perform “Teach Your Children.”   In addition to the obvious absences of Neil Young and Stephen Stills, on the original recording, the late, great Jerry Garcia performed steel pedal.

David Crosby - Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

David Crosby – Photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

One original from the album remains the same.  The superbly kind and professional Henry Diltz was on hand to photograph the concert.  Deja Vu is among Diltz’ more than vast portfolio of work dating back to the 1960s.  He is co-owner with Peter Blachley and Rich Horowitz of The Morrison Hotel Galleries in New York City, West Hollywood and the new location at the W Hotel in Hollywood.

Morello riled up the audience telling them to “take down the velvet rope” that separates the audience by class, and ticket price.  It probably isn’t a great feeling to be on stage and see a wall-to-wall 3-foot gap between the photographers in the pit and the adoring audience.  So Morello encouraged the audience to break down at least some barrier in their lives.  Even as a symbolic gesture it caused a rush of people to the front and a lot more happy faces.

La Santa Cecilia photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

Students and Actors like Alfre Woodard perform spoken word – photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

Etheridge sang some fun ones including her well-known “Bring Me Some Water,” and hosted her own secret confessions, telling the audience that she is a lesbian and she is in favor of legalizing pot.

Produced by RFK Human Rights and The GRAMMY Museum — and sponsored by 88.5 KCSN — The Concert For Social Justice featured veterans, but was really about enabling young musicians to find and create their messages for social change through songwriting.  It’s a wonderful initiative, and Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Bobby Kennedy, is the driving force.

Kennedy — with Bob Santelli, executive director of The GRAMMY Museum, at her side — thanked Browne profusely for his help, his time and his ability to gather like-minded artists to perform for the cause.  Of course, Browne looks great and is going on tour to promote his album Standing In The Breach.  He is a mellow presence among the group of fun rabble rousers.

And while headlined by Browne, Etheridge, Morello, and Crosby and Nash, the spotlight was on young artists like Rocky Dawuni and La Santa Cecilia.

Dawuni was impressive with his friendly demeanor and endearing efforts to get the audience to repeat his reggae chorus.  He is cool and his style is energetic and uplifting.

La Santa Cecilia - photo by Donna Balancia

La Santa Cecilia – photo © 2015 Donna Balancia

La Santa Cecilia is a treat with their colorful performance and up tempo music that combines beats from different regions and a style that mixes jazz, rock, tango and bolero. The band won a GRAMMY Award in 2014 for Best Latin Rock Album.

But the members of La Santa Cecilia were not the youngest people on the stage.

Jade Rhodes from the Brentwood School in Los Angeles was the first winner of the RFK Human Rights Speak Up Sing Out Music Contest and she brought the house to tears with her song, “Invisible.”  Written, and performed at the piano on Wednesday by Rhodes, “Invisible,” is based on how she imagines an immigrant student may feel in a new school.

And after Etheridge, Crosby and Nash, Morello, Browne, Dawuni and La Santa Cecilia and the actors all took the stage for the finale of “This Land Is Your Land,” Rhodes stepped up, front and center, and sang the loudest of them all.

Now that’s inspiring.

Wednesday’s Concert For Social Justice To Benefit Young Musicians

They are known for their songs of social justice. And on Wednesday night, when Crosby and Nash, Melissa Etheridge, and Jackson Browne take the stage during The Concert For Social Justice, they will have a special purpose.

David Crosby - photo courtesy of Django Crosby

David Crosby – photo courtesy of Django Crosby

Wednesday’s concert at The Fonda Theatre in Hollywood is presented jointly by the GRAMMY Museum and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. It also features Tom Morello, La Santa Cecilia and Rocky Dawuni, along with heavy-hitter actors like Martin Sheen and Alfre Woodard.

But the real stars are the students in a new music contest jointly presented by The GRAMMY Museum and the Robert F. Kennedy Center Human Rights‘ “Speak Truth To Power” initiative.

The Wednesday concert at The Fonda Theatre kicks off the national launch of the music writing contest called “Speak Up Sing Out: Songs of Conscience.” A regional, Los Angeles-based pilot of contest was held in 2014. The winner of that contest — still unannounced by the organizations — will appear on stage with the music superstars.

Concert For Social Justice Sold Out

The sold-out concert was first announced here on California Rocker on March 30.

“The concert kicks off the expansion of Speak Up Sing Out, nationwide,” said John Heffernan, executive director of the Speak Truth To Power program and who was instrumental in producing the concert. “Our partnership with the GRAMMY Museum is to empower young people to create change with music. So far it’s been limited to Los Angeles, but we want to bring national awareness of Speak Up Sing Out contest using the GRAMMY network. La Santa Cecilia

La Santa Cecilia to Perform at The Concert For Social Justice – Photo courtesy of La Santa Cecilia

During 2014, the contest received 25 submissions. The selections were narrowed to five, and finally, one artist’s submission was selected as most relevant. The selected artist will perform Wednesday night alongside some of the world’s most famous musicians.

“The way to prevent human rights injustices is to educate, tell people they can ‘Speak Up and Sing Out,’ Heffernan said. “We want to build a citizenry of committed people holding society to the highest standards of equality and justice.”

David Crosby, Graham Nash, Etheridge and Browne were among those selected for a particular reason, Heffernan said.

“We brought in these musicians because they’ve played such an important role of social change, writing songs of conscience,” Heffernan said. “Their music is so mainstream but they’re talking about critical issues.”

Highlighting the musical performances will be well-known actors performing monologues in the roles of revered world leaders and influencers. Among additional actors expected are Dennis Haysbert, Chad Lowe and David Arquette.

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