Bob Dylan agreed to allow 15-year-old interview segments to be included in Jessica Edwards’ new documentary about gospel legend Mavis Staples, which made its television debut on HBO Sunday night. The film, titled Mavis! – The Documentary, traces her career from the early days with her family gospel group the Staples Singers, through her ups, downs, and triumphant return to glory as a solo artist. While the film covers her collaborations with Jeff Tweedy, Prince, the Band, and others, as well as testimonials from Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D., and the late civil rights leader and politician Julian Bond, here we will focus on the Dylan content.
There are two segments featuring Dylan. The first, about 14 minutes in, features Dylan talking over the Staples Singers’ performance of “Sit Down Servant.” In an interview from November, 2001, Dylan recalled listening to the radio, in bed under the covers, when he was young. “At midnight, the gospel stuff would start. The Staples Singers came on once, and they were just so different … Pops (Mavis’ father) has an easy kind of flow voice and kind of a gentle voice, but then this other voice came on, which I found out was Mavis. One of the first songs I heard that made my hair stand up on end was called ‘Sit Down Servant,’ that just made me stay up for a week after I heard that song.”
About twenty minutes later, there’s a longer segment featuring Dylan. It begins with the credits for the 1963 TV special, Folk Sings and More Folk Songs!, with Dylan, the Staples, and others walking in front of the singing Brothers Four, followed by a snippet of Dylan performing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” while Mavis talks about their first encounter. Mavis said she wasn’t familiar with Dylan at the time, but he certainly was familiar with her. Mavis said Pops immediately related to Dylan’s lyrics, especially the lines about “How many roads,” because in Mississippi, he had to cross the street when a white man walked by. The Staples Singers learned it, and then recorded it.
“(Dylan) was a cute guy, curly hair … but I didn’t have flirtin’ on my mind back then,” Mavis said, “but he did!” After telling her father he wanted to marry Mavis, Pops told Dylan to ask Mavis directly, but shen he did, she “didn’t take it to heart … I was a young girl.” At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan told her he was serious. “We wrote letters, we kept in touch … We may have smooched!”
Talking about the 1964 Newport performance, Dylan said, “The atmosphere was high charged with plenty of different kinds of musicians around … I think we kind of got friendly at the time and I knew the Staples Singers at the time, so I probably was in hotels, and hanging around with them.”
Dylan and Mavis musically collaborated twice since then, although neither performance is covered in the documentary. In 1992, Mavis appeared on stage with Bob Dylan at the taping of the David Letterman 10th anniversary special, singing backup on “Like a Rolling Stone.” In 2002, Dylan and Mavis duetted on a rewritten version of his composition, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”
Of the dozens of Dylan Internet sites … Expecting Rain … and the byteclay.com Bob Dylan blog by Harold Lepidus are the best places for up-to-the-minute Dylan news – David Kinney, “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.”(Simon & Schuster, 2014)
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