Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw, Staple Singers (1964)

A tongue can accuse and carry bad news
Gossip is cheap and it's low
So unless you've made no mistakes in your life
Just be careful of the stones that you throw

This is the last post of 2008. It's been a year of tremendous highs and lows for me personally and for the world. Inasmuch as contemplating our navels - and our vices - is standard procedure on this day, I thought I'd end on a New Year's note of self-improvement, with lyrics that we would all do well to take to heart.

Mavis Staples was on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me a few weeks ago and there was some hilarious discussion about an aspect of her life about which I knew nothing - her former romance with Bob Dylan, who was such an admirer of hers that he once spontaneously asked Pops Staples for her hand in marriage. (He was told to ask Mavis directly, she said, and she declined, a decision she didn't sound entirely sure was the right one!)

The interview reminded me of a 1964 song of theirs, Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw, that I discovered only through Bob himself just this year, on his Theme Time Radio Hour. As it happens, it's also a song Dylan performed with members of The Band in 1967, and it appears on his Genuine Basement Tapes, Volume 1.

In any case, before the Staple Singers went mainstream as recording artists for Stax during the tumultuous civil rights movement in which they were fixtures, Pops (aka Roebuck) Staples and his children Cleotha, Mavis, Purvis and Yvonne made less secular roots records like the thrilling call-and-response version of this old standard, accompanied only by Pops' guitar. The use of a guitar when they performed at church services, as they often did, was groundbreaking, and in some circles thought to be inappropriate. But it was a signature element of the Staples sound, and eventually the objections were overcome.

Be Careful was written by a songwriter and steel guitar player named Bonnie Dodd. Originally recorded in 1949 by Little Jimmy Dickens, it got a good bit more attention when Hank Williams, Sr., performing in his gospel mode as "Luke the Drifter, " recorded it in 1952.

In the hands of the Staples family, it became another animal altogether. Music so drenched in the Mississippi delta from which Pops Staples came, like this and Why Am I Treated So Bad, wasn't very likely to get radio play back in those days. More typical was the likes of Respect Yourself, reflective of the ethos of self- and group-empowerment that exploded during the 60s, and which was likely better suited to crossing over from the R&B charts to the pop.

Hats off to Dylan and all of the zillions of music lovers who share their treasures on YouTube and make it possible to discover inspiring music that would otherwise remain in the history vaults. Pops once told an interviewer for Guitar Player magazine that his main objective musically was to "to sing a song that says together we stand and divided we fall." Let's hope that those words are somehow reflected in the events that we contemplate this time next year.


karmaSartre said...

Great song, I had never heard it before. Many thanks for it, and your blog is a godsend.

cornbread hell said...

wow. i only knew this song from luke the drifter. fascinating write-up.

Just J said...

I'm reading Dylan's memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 & so I found this post particularly interesting, one of your best, methinks.

writechick said...

Wow. How interesting about Dylan. His life is his art. I heard that radio show, too, and somehow missed that part. She sure can sing!