in a recent new yorker article, mavis staples recounts her experience singing “the weight” for martin scorcese’s band documentary the last waltz. if you’ve never seen this masterpiece, put it that the top of your viewing list. just an absolute stunner of musical and visual beauty, and a post-football staple of my family’s thanksgiving tradition.
and if you haven’t heard mavis’ most recent solo album you are not alone and one true vine, both produced by jeff tweedy, then add that to your to-do list as well. the lady is a national treasure.
and not to take anything away from her, but pops’ verse is by far my favorite part of the song. the way he tweaks the lyrics to fit him and the spirit of their version of the song is excellent. here’s mavis’ summary:
It was so beautiful to me. I was surprised that was caught on tape, you know, because I thought I was whispering. It wasn’t rehearsed to go like that. It was just a feeling that brought that on. The excitement of being with our friends—Levon and Danko and those guys were such good friends of ours—to be singing with them, and knowing that this is going to be on the big screen, the silver screen, it was just a moment in time for me. You could probably, had you been there, you would have heard my heart pounding.
Scorsese gave us all a break at one point, and everybody scattered. Levon was on his drums, still drumming. So Pops walked back there. “Hey, Levon!” Levon said, “Hey Roebuck!” And they talked a bit, and all of a sudden Pops realized that Levon was smokin’ two cigarettes. He said, “Levon, man, you’re smoking two cigarettes at a time?” And Levon held one of ’em up and said, “Oooooooh, Roebuck. You gotta try this one!” And that one was marijuana! Pops said, “Man, I don’t want none of that mess.” Daddy was so tickled. We talked about thatforever.
I have a tendency, which I think is good, to just sing from my heart. I want to feel it myself. Pops taught me that, to sing from my heart. I can’t just sing from the top of my head. I gotta get into the song. I see it like a movie, in my head, when I’m singing. I got Chester, I know what he looks like. And when Pops says, “Go down, Moses,” I know Moses. I took it as Moses in the Bible, you know. I just make up my own vision to make the song feel good for me, and make it my own. We were in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Nazareth was on the same highway. But when we sang, “I pulled into Nazareth,” I took it as Nazareth in the Bible. You could ask those guys what the song was about and they’d say, “We don’t know.” I guess they didn’t want to go through a long explanation. My brother said, “Mavis, I know what the song is about. This song is about drugs.”
You know, there were about three takes and that was it. And I thought each one was cool. I didn’t understand why we were going over it again, but I thought it was something for safety for Mr. Scorsese. But the first take was cool with me. I sang my part the same way. I don’t know if I sang it any better the next time around, but like I say, Mr. Green, I sing what I feel, and I felt that each of those three times. The song sounded like it was finished the first time, for me. I be knowin’ when I’ve done my best and it’s finished.
I’ve had a lot of great moments in my life and my career. But that is something where I could put my chest out and hold my head up and I can just be super proud.
I don’t want to be gloatin’, you know, but anytime I watch it, it’s refreshing. It’s like the first time. You never get tired of it, you know. And I remember everything about it. I remember every moment that we had doing that. Pops said, “Mavis! Baby, you shouldn’t carry it out so long like that,” when I go, “Heeeyyyy yeeeeaaah.” And I said, “Nah, daddy, that’s the good part. That’s what I feel.” He said, “O.K., do what you feel. That’s the best thing. Do what you feel.”