Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Say it ain't so, Pops!

Continuing on the Talking Heads theme, and tying in on some items I'm discussing on my business blog, here's an unusual video of a song that many of us have never heard. Not just because the particular clip includes German overdubbing of the dialogue - you see, the song itself wasn't overdubbed. But the more famous version of the song, which was released on a best-selling record, was sung by David Byrne. This version, taken from the movie, is sung by Pops Staples.

Now Roebuck "Pops" Staples was well-known as a gospel musician who had some secular hits with the Staple Singers. And then he recorded this song called "Papa Legba," which, to put it mildly, is not necessarily orthodox Christian gospel. Not at all:

Amazingly, even today, while traveling in and around the Mississippi Delta, you’ll still hear fabled tales of the old bluesmen selling their souls at the crossroads in exchange for supernatural musical gifts. Whereas the Robert Johnson tale has become the most widely known (to the point of ad nauseam), it is in fact more of a composite story, derived from old African American folk traditions that found its way to the Americas centuries ago embedding itself into our cultural fabric.

Stateside, these themes morphed, and the sale of one’s soul at the “crossroads”, due to Christianity’s influence, was to be made with Satan, or the devil. If traced back to its roots though you’ll find it more likely that such a deal – if there was one to be made – would have been conducted with Papa Legba, the spiritual intermediary between our world and the next. Known by many a name in Voodoo, Voudou, Santeria, etc, Legba was a gatekeeper said to grant access to the spirit world.

In David Byrne's film, Pops' spells summon love for John Goodman's character. But Staples' own character was fused by two traditions, the Christian tradition and the blues tradition, that intertwined in the lives of many. Staples:

"I was a Christian man," Staples once said. "I figured blues wasn't the right field for me. My family was a real religious family. There were 14 of us. In the evening, when we used to get through working in the fields picking cotton, we didn't have no amusement but to sing to ourselves. We didn't have no radio, no television, nothing like that. That's the way my family got started singing. I took it from my father's family and brought it to Chicago with my own family. I knew how to get harmony and I taught each one. I'd hit the guitar string where they were supposed to sing and they caught on."

By the 1970s, when they reached the height of their popularity, the Staple Singers were the definition of crossover. Take the subsequent history of one of their biggest hits:

"I'll Take You There" ... has received a second life through numerous covers by BeBe & CeCe Winans and recently via General Motors commercials.

General Motors? Talk about a deal with the devil...
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