The Hero at the Festival: How one woman made everything matter

Baptized by sweat and sunburn, The Pilgrimage Festival was to be the first musical experience in Nashville that changed my life. Shortly after I relocated to the Music City, I saw an ad for the festival and knew I had to check a concert off my bucket list: Ryan Adams. I was so excited! Some of the other fantastic artists I experienced that day were Valerie June, with her beautiful dreads and clarion voice, Muddy Magnolias with their brand of rock/soul, Langhorne Slim’s story-telling, Fitz and the Tantrums high energy, and then…the queen of the ball: Mavis Staples.

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My first experience with Mavis Staples was when my high school friend, Kristin, introduced me to The Last Waltz, a documentary on The Band and all of the special guests that played for them at their final performance. Even though The Staple Singers sang for a later edit, it was Mavis and Pops covering “The Weight” that affected me the most. So, when I had the chance to hear her sing at the prime age of 78, I knew I couldn’t miss it–even if it meant forfeiting the first 10 minutes and a good spot in the crowd for my golden boy, Mr. Adams.

I had my pick of spots to stand near to the stage, waiting in the shade to save my energy to dance in the sun when she came out to share her gift with us. She sang “Freedom Highway” (click here to listen) and, little did I know that the furious mix of dancing, singing, shouting, and hollering would cause the tears to stream down my face for minutes on end. As I was having this experience amongst the trampled grass and crumpled water bottles, the words she sang resonated my in heart, “I can’t understand…why some folks think freedom is not designed for all men.”


You see, this young Mavis was one of the main voices of the Civil Rights Movement, singing deliverance songs for marches and non-violent protests in the 60’s and beyond. That sound was like a train on tracks this past Sunday as she sang her song for those 45 minutes in that open field. As she talked about Selma and Dr. King and being put in jail, and getting out and doing it all again, I could hear Heaven’s sound of deliverance. That is the sound that I’m after, that’s the sound in my bones.

When Mavis exited the stage, I didn’t even have much of a desire to see Ryan Adams on the next stage. I had heard what I had come to experience that day– a sound of freedom, a song that outlasts generations: “Marching on Freedom Highway/Marching each and every day.” She had imparted something to me, and I could feel it in the deep parts of my soul: deliverance songs are just as needed today as they were 50 or 60 years ago.  I will sing the Freedom Song until I have no voice, and then my heart will transmit the sound until it no longer beats.  Arm in arm with my brothers and sisters, we’re singing “I’ve made up my mind, and I won’t turn around.” And that’s why Mavis Staples will be the Hero at every festival she sings at until her sounds are left to echo in the sounds of the listeners.