Today we’re publishing my story “What if Mavis Staples Had Accepted Bob Dylan’s Marriage Proposal?” a sequel of sorts to my 2015 Paste article, “What if the Beatles Hadn’t Broken Up?” With stories such as these, the inevitable question always arises: “Why should people spend time reading about what didn’t happen when they could be reading about what did?
My answer every time is, “Because speculating on what might have happened provides otherwise unavailable insights into what actually did happen. All fiction is a kind of alternative history, its the success measured by the ability of what never happened to shed light on what happens every day. Novels, short stories, stage scripts and screenplays invent new narratives by ascribing behavior, dialogue and interior thoughts to real-life people. Sometimes they give new names to real-life people, or those people are clumped together into composite characters. Even science-fiction and fantasy have to show us something about human behavior that remains true even if you subtract the spaceships and dragons.
No matter the process, the success of fiction is measured by the ability of what never happened to shed light on what happens every day.
Alternative history also raises questions that must be answered. I once interviewed a National Parks historian about the Battle of Gettysburg. What would have happened, I asked, if right after the battle, Union General George Meade had ordered his troops to pursue Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s battered brigades across the Potomac for a finishing blow? Might the Civil War have ended two years earlier than it did?
The historian dismissed the question. Given his cautious nature, Meade was incapable of such a bold move, the historian said. Grant might have made that move, but he wasn’t in charge of the Army of the Potomac at that point in the war. History, the historian argued, can only happen one way, because all the factors are aligned to make one result possible. I found this unsatisfying. It is plausible that Meade might have thrown off his customary caution for once and sent his troops after the vulnerable Confederates to finish them off for good.
Moreover, we can’t understand the varying importance of all the factors that have produced history as it actually occurred unless we contemplate the consequences of changing just one of those factors. If you write an alternative fiction where Meade displays unusual courage and sends his troops after Lee, you inevitably arrive at the decimation of the Army of Virginia and a shortening of the war. Only then can you fully appreciate the significance of Meade’s decision. Or you could write an alternative history where Lee shows unusual caution, decides against Pickett’s suicidal charge and retreats in good order, thereby lengthening the war.
The same dynamic can be applied to music history. A complex web of factors made pop music happen the way it did, but which factors were most important? Only by changing one of those factors and pursuing the consequences can we know which turning points were truly pivotal.
What if John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had kept The Beatles together after Paul McCartney quit? What if Ronnie Van Zant, Buddy Holly and Otis Redding had avoided or survived their plane crashes? What if Woody Guthrie hadn’t gotten sick? What if Robert Johnson had passed up that poisoned flask? What if Mavis Staples had accepted Bob Dylan’s marriage proposal in 1963?
All these scenarios suggest how pop-music history could have yielded much different music than it actually did. Because I’m an innate optimist, those are the storylines I’m drawn to. But one could also fashion what-if plots that led to less memorable music. What if Lennon and McCartney had never crossed paths as teenagers?
What if Bob Dylan had married Cher? For every alternative universe that would have been better than the present, one can imagine a substitute world that would have been worse.
Alternative history may not overthrow the world order, but it can make us rethink our assumptions about history. And the first assumption that ought to crumble is the belief that our world couldn’t have turned out any differently, the notion that for all our hubris, historical forces would have brought us to this same place no matter what. If we can look back at pop-music history, for one, and learn how different decisions could have led to better music, then perhaps we can make similar decisions moving forward and create a better future. So without further ado, please enjoy “What If Mavis Staples Had Accepted Bob Dylan’s Marriage Proposal?”
On March 3, 1963, Bob Dylan proposed to Mavis Staples during the rehearsals for a Westinghouse TV special, “Folk Songs and More Folk Songs.” She turned him down, though he continued to pursue her for several years. But what if she had accepted? What follows is a fictional account of how their marriage could have changed not only their own lives but also popular music at large.
March 3, 1963, New York, N.Y.
Pops Staples, his daughters Mavis and Cleotha and his son Pervis were standing in line for catering at Westinghouse’s TV studio, where the Staple Singers were about to tape their version of “Sit Down Servant.” From the back of the line came a squeaky voice, shouting, “Pops, I want to marry Mavis.”
Running up to the Staples was a skinny 21-year-old kid in a flannel shirt and a denim jacket, his skinny frame crowned by a nest of brown curls. It was little Bobby Dylan, the folk singer and songwriter the Staples had met the previous September at a gospel festival on New York City’s Randall’s Island.
The 48-year-old Pops burst into chuckles and shook his head when Bobby repeated his very public proposal. But the 23-year-old Mavis’s eyes widened in fear, because she knew he wasn’t necessarily joking. She had been flirting and smooching with Bobby since they met, but she was no more ready to make that romance public than she was to get married.
“Don’t tell me,” Pops told Bobby; “tell Mavis.” So the young singer turned to her and said, “Mavis, will you marry me?” “Get down on your knee, fool,” hissed the 29-year-old Pervis, and Bobby fell on both knees and repeated the question. Obviously flustered, Mavis started shaking her head no but blurted out, “Yes.” Then she started nodding her head, but said, “No, no, no, I’m not ready.”
A crowd of performers and crew had gathered around this scene. Some were chuckling like Pops at Bobby’s theatrical entrance and Mavis’s rattled response. Others were stunned. Interracial romance was a rarity, and interracial marriage was illegal in 18 states.
“You two need to go somewhere by yourselves and sort this out,” Pops said, and he turned to slide his tray down the aluminum shelf and fill his plate. Mavis still looked shell-shocked, when Bobby took her hand and led her to an empty dressing room. They sat down and stared at each other in the long mirror above the make-up table. They examined his pale, angular face next to her rounded features, framed by her bangs and perm. Could those faces be a married couple?
“Mavis,” Bobby said, “I’m sorry if I made a circus show of it, but that’s the only way I could overcome my nerves and ask you. But I’m serious: I do want to marry you.”
“Oh, Bobby,” she replied, “I do like you, but I’m not ready to get married—to you or anyone else. We’re both so young, and a black woman with a white man—there’s nothing wrong with that, but it will be so hard. I don’t think you know how hard.” He didn’t say anything, so she smiled and ran her right hand through his tousled hair. “But I do like you.”
He had the clenched look of serious concentration, but then he broke into a big grin. “So you’re not saying yes,” he said, “but you’re not saying no either.”
“That’s right,” she said. “You can court me, and we’ll see.”
He leaned over and kissed her. She closed her eyes, but she opened one eye a little to see what they looked like in the mirror. They looked good.
August 27, 1963, Washington, D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. was sitting in a trailer parked behind the Lincoln Memorial. A quarter million people had assembled along the reflecting pool and beyond to demand that the government pass Civil Rights legislation. King ran his index finger across his thin mustache as he worked on the speech. He had just changed “they will not be judged by their skin but by their character” to “they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” when an aide came up and whispered, “Mavis Staples wants to say hello, but I told her you were busy.”
“Oh, I always have time for Mavis,” King said with a laugh. “Bring her in.”
She walked in, dragging a skinny white kid behind her. “Dr. King,” she said, “I want to introduce my boyfriend Bobby Dylan. He’s singing today.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of you, son. I like that ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ song of yours. So you’re wooing our Mavis? You’re a lucky man.”
“Yes, sir,” Bobby replied. “You know, I just had an idea. If I’m lucky in my wooing and she agrees to marry me, will you perform the ceremony?”
“Why, certainly. I would do anything for Pops and his family; they’ve always been there for me. How soon do you expect to get married?”
“That all depends on Mavis. She hasn’t said yes and she hasn’t said no. But I think I’m gaining ground.”
“Well, as the old spiritual says, ‘Keep your eye on the prize.’” King let loose a baritone guffaw. “And Mavis is quite a prize, so you keep working on it. Don’t let your differences be a barrier; love can conquer all.” He turned to Mavis and asked, “Are you singing today?”
“No,” she replied. “I just took the train to D.C. yesterday so I could be part of the march.” She blushed again. “And to spend some time with Bobby.”
“Bobby,” Dr. King said, “why don’t you bring her up for a song?”
“Well,” Bobby said, “I’m singing ‘When the Ship Comes In’ with Joan Baez and ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ by myself.” He turned to Mavis and asked, “Do you know that one?”
“Oh, that’s one of your talking songs,” she said. “Let’s do one of your singing songs. Let’s do that ‘Hard Rain’ tune.”
“Is it alright to change songs?” Bobby asked Dr. King.
“Sure, sure, you tell them I said it was OK. Now scoot on out of here and let me finish this speech.”
As Mavis and Bobby walked from the trailer back to the Lincoln Memorial, she stopped and looked at him like she was deciding whether to say something. After a long minute, the question burst out: “Bobby, what’s going on with you and Joan?”
He glanced away guiltily but then he swung his gaze back to Mavis. “I like Joan,” he said. “I like her singing. I like the doors she’s opened for me. But I’m not in love with her, not like I am with you. You’re the one I want to marry.”
Mavis examined him quizzically, then regrasped his hand and walked him toward the stage. Half an hour later, Bobby shook hands with Joan after his opening song, and announced to the crowd, “I’ve got a surprise for you now.” He waved Mavis onto the stage and they embraced by the microphone.
The visual image of the two young lovers triggered something in the crowd, and it rose to its feet and lifted its voices in a wave that began right in front of the stage and spread in all directions like a stone sending ripples across a pond.
Mavis sang the opening couplet of each verse—the questions posed to the blue-eyed son, the darling young one—by herself, and her boyfriend answered with a catalogue of answers. On the chorus, his raspy “It’s a hard…” was answered by her higher, stronger and clearer “It’s a hard…” each time till their voices finally came together on “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” His words and her voice: it was a combination that couldn’t be beat.
The visual image of the two young lovers triggered something in the crowd, and it rose to its feet and lifted its voices in a wave that began right in front of the stage and spread in all directions like a tossed stone sending ripples across a pond.
May 15, 1964, Chicago, Illinois
New Nazareth Baptist Church
“I have spoken at many churches in recent years,” Martin Luther King Jr. told the congregation at the New Nazareth Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, “but today I come to you with a different purpose. Today I come not to ask you to bear witness to social injustice and the hatred at its root. Today I come to ask you to bear witness to a marriage and the love that is its fruit.”
King, wearing his floor-length black minister’s robe with the black-satin details, grinned broadly, flashing his teeth as a breeze of laughter and “Amen”s swept across the packed congregation. He stood before the altar, and kneeling at his feet were the couple to be married: Mavis Staples in a simple, white-cotton dress and a white pillbox hat spilling a white-lace veil, and Bobby Dylan in a black suit, white shirt and red bolo tie.
“It is fitting that we take this day to be joyful,” King continued, “for how can we stand opposed to the hatred that ravages our beloved nation if we cannot present evidence of love and happiness in contrast? And what better evidence could we offer than these two young people: this beautiful woman from the crowded streets right here in Chicago and this handsome man from the small town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota? They have come from very different corners of our society, and still they have made common cause in their love of music, their love of justice and their love of each other.
“If they could climb over the walls and fences that divide our land, if they could overcome old prejudices and new hates, if they could look beyond the stereotypes they were taught and see the shining spirit in each other, why can’t we do the same?
“We are here to celebrate a wedding, which is not the same as a marriage. A marriage happens in private, when two people in the seclusion of their own whispered conversations, look into each other’s eyes and agree that their love is strong enough that they will spend the rest of their lives together. A wedding is the public announcement and confirmation of that decision. A wedding is the time for the couple to declare their love to their community of friends and family, and it is the time for that community to declare their approval of that love and to promise to support that marriage in every way possible.
“And so I ask all you assembled here today,” King continued, his voicing rising in pitch and volume, “all you friends and relatives of Miss Mavis, all you friends and relatives of Mister Bob, do you accept and approve their love? Can I get an Amen?”
The congregations roared back, “Amen!”
“Is this the kind of joyful day that makes all our struggles worthwhile?”
King motioned Mavis and Bobby to stand and come closer. Mavis’s maid of honor, her sister Cleotha, stood nearby in a purple gown, while Bob’s best man, Allen Ginsberg, flanked him in a purple suit.
“Will you, Bob Dylan, have Mavis Staples to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort and keep her, and forsaking all others, remain true to her as long as you both shall live?”
“I will,” he called out in a hillbilly yelp.
“Will you, Mavis Staples, have Bob Dylan to be your husband? Will you love him, comfort and keep him, and forsaking all others, remain true to him/her as long as you both shall live?”
“I will,” she replied in a soft, nervous voice. Bob made the comic gesture of wiping perspiration from his brow as if he’d been sweating over her answer. They exchanged rings, and King said, “I pronounce you man and wife. Son, you may kiss the bride.” And he kissed her so long that some in the crowd started giggling.
“As some of you may know,” King added with a laugh, “our newlyweds are musicians. They would each like to perform a song to celebrate their marriage.”
Pops plugged in his guitar into an amplifier to the left of the altar, and Mavis turned to face the congregation. “It seems so strange that I was a single woman yesterday,” she said, “and I’m a married woman today. Strange and wonderful. I can’t describe how happy I am in talking, so I’m going to sing you a song by one of my favorite singers, Dinah Washington.”
Pops sketched out the chords in a short introduction, and Mavis’s alto slowly but surely gathered its power as she sang, “What a diff’rence a day made. Twenty-four little hours brought the sun and the flowers where there used to be rain. My yesterday was blue, dear. Today I’m part of you, dear. My lonely nights are through, dear, since you said you were mine.” Bobby pulled out a handkerchief and pretended to blow his nose, but it was obvious he was dabbing away some tears.
He collected himself, took his acoustic guitar out of its case, wrapped a harmonica holder around his neck and kissed his new wife and they changed places. “I’m thinking I got the best of this deal,” he said. “I’ll get to hear Mavis singing around the house, while she’ll have to listen to me.” He cracked up laughing. “In any case, I wrote this song about her to let you all know how special she is to me. Pops, it’s a blues in C.”
Bobby played a bit of the song on guitar and mouth harp till Pops caught hold of the changes. “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back,” Bobby sang. “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back. She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black.”
August 30, 1965, Chicago, Ill.
Edited transcript from a radio show:
(music fades out)
Studs Terkel: You’ve been listening to “More Than a Hammer and Nails” from the new album from the Staple Singers, Amen! That’s Mavis Staples singing the lead, and that’s her new husband Bob Dylan playing harmonica. Both Bob and Mavis have been on our show before, but this is the first time they’ve been on the show since their wedding last year. Congratulations, by the way.
: Thank you, Studs.
Studs Terkel: There are still states in this nation where it is illegal for a black person and a white person to get married. Did you face much resistance or obstacles?
: I think Mavis’s folks was more worried about her marrying a badly dressed folk singer than they were about her marrying a white person.
: Don’t mind him. You know, we got letters, and we heard people talking, but if you’re going to believe what Dr. King says about love being stronger than hate, then you have to live your life that way.
Studs Terkel: Bob, you just called yourself a folk singer, but you created a lot of controversy at the Newport Folk Festival when you played electric guitar with a rock ‘n’ roll band. Are you leaving folk music behind?
: It’s such a load of rubbish, Studs. I mean, my heroes played with electric guitar and drums. Howlin’ Wolf had an electric guitar and drum set behind him; so did Johnny Cash. Whatever you call them, you can call me. If they’re folk singers, I’m a folk singer. If they’re not folk singers, then I’m not either. If they’re creatures from outer space, then I’m a creature from outer space.
: It’s all so silly. Pops plays electric guitar. I don’t hear the folk-music police complaining that he’s sold out because he’s plugged in. If you don’t say that about my daddy, don’t say it about my husband.
Studs Terkel: It sounds like you have the best possible lawyer defending you, Bob.
: If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that you don’t mess with Mavis.
Studs Terkel: Going forward, do you think you’ll be doing more songs with electric guitar or acoustic guitar?
: Every song is different and requires a different tool. Like on my last record, “Mr. Tambourine Man” needs a hollow box. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” needs vacuum tubes. If you’re carving a ball-in-chain, you need a penknife. If you’re building a sports car, you need a welding torch.
Studs Terkel: On that album, which I should tell the listeners is called Bringing It All Back Home, you have Mavis singing harmony on the song “Maggie’s Farm.” Why did you have her sing on that song?
: Well, it’s a gospel song, ain’t it? If you’re married to the best gospel singer in the world, why wouldn’t you ask her to help you out?
: That’s a Civil Rights song. That’s the same message as “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” I was born to sing those songs.
Studs Terkel: Let’s listen to “Maggie’s Farm.”
Studs Terkel: Bob, you played harmonica on the Staple Singers’ new album. Are we going to hear more collaborations?
: We want to, but our careers are so busy right now that haven’t had time to think about collaborating. It seems when Bobby’s at home, the Staple Singers are on tour. And when I’m home, Bobby’s on tour or in the studio.
: I don’t want it to look like I’m cashing in on the Staple Singers’ popularity.
: When we are home at the same time, we like to sit down on the piano bench together and sing those old songs together. It’s a lot of fun for us, but I don’t know if anyone else would like it.
Studs Terkel: Oh, I think they would. Home is in Chicago now, isn’t it?
: Yes, we bought a townhouse in Hyde Park on the South Side. I wanted to stay close to my family, and Bobby was nice enough to move from New York.
: It’s a great neighborhood. It’s close to the lake, Theresa’s Lounge and Comiskey Park.
Studs Terkel: Are you a baseball fan?
: Oh, yeah. I love Hoyt Wilhelm. I’m trying to write some new songs as slow and unpredictable as his knuckleball.
Studs Terkel: Why is it important to be close to your family?
: My family is everything to me. I sing with them. I worship with them. I eat with them. Everything I do is better because I do it with them.
Studs Terkel: You two had quite the wedding last year.
: It was wonderful. Thanks for coming, Studs.
Studs Terkel: Bobby wrote a song for you for the wedding, didn’t he?
: Yes. It was called, “She Belongs to Me,” and he sang it after we said our vows.
Studs Terkel: How did it make you feel?
: I had always wondered what it would feel like to be the person in a song, like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” or “Crepuscule with Nellie.” Now I know. It’s like you’re lifted out of daily life into a life of centuries.
Studs Terkel: How did you come to write that song, Bob?
: It started with that line, “She’s got everything she needs; she’s an artist, she don’t look back.” That’s Mavis. She doesn’t need anything; she’s got it all. I knew she was marrying me not because she needed me for anything but because she wanted it.
Studs Terkel: Let’s hear that song.
(The song plays.)
Studs Terkel: Bob, you’ve been criticized in some quarters for not writing protest songs anymore. How do you respond to that?
: Oh, that’s silly. I never wrote protest songs.
: Oh, don’t listen to him. Of course he wrote protest songs. He’s still writing them. “Maggie’s Farm” is a protest song. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a protest song. All his songs are a protest against the way things are and a prayer for the way things should be.
: Yeah, you could say all my songs are protest songs. Or you could say all my songs are love songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a love song. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is a love song. They’re about how much I love the people I’ve met along the way. If you write a song that isn’t a love song and a protest song at the same time, you should put it back in the drawer and work on it again at later date.
Studs Terkel: So what do you two have planned for the fall?
: The Staple Singers are coming out with what I think is our best album ever. We recorded it in the same church that Bobby and I got married in, and the record is named after the best song Pops has written yet: “Freedom Highway.” It’s all about Civil Rights marchers going down that road to freedom, determined that we won’t turn around now.
Studs Terkel: And you, Bob?
: Well, I just released that song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” that’s getting played on the radio. And it will be on an album that’s being released today, actually. It’s called Highway 61 Revisited. And I just found a Canadian band that I really like, and they’re going to be my band for the next few months. They’re called the Hawks, because they used to back up Ronnie Hawkins.
Studs Terkel: So this will be a rock ‘n’ roll show like your set at Newport?
: I just played a show in Queens two nights ago where I played the first half by myself and the second half with a band. The shows will all be like that. That band was half Hawks and half studio cats. But going forward the band will be all-Hawks.
Studs Terkel: Did they boo like they did at Newport?
: Oh, it was 10 times worse. But I don’t mind. I like to hear them boo. It makes me play harder.
: Y’all need to stop booing my husband. If you don’t, I’m going to protest you till you beg me to stop.
: Watch out, people, here comes Mavis.
Studs Terkel: Let’s hear one more song. This is “Like a Rolling Stone.”
“You could say all my songs are protest songs. Or you could say all my songs are love songs. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is a love song. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ is a love song. They’re about how much I love the people I’ve met along the way. If you write a song that isn’t a love song and a protest song at the same time, you should put it back in the drawer and work on it again at later date.”
January 24, 1966, Nashville, Tenn.
Mother “Maybelle” Carter answered the knock at the door, turned and shouted, “June, someone here to see you.” June shuffled down the stairs from her bedroom, saying, “Who is it, Mama?” “I don’t know,” Maybelle answered. “She said she was Bob Dylan, but I know that’s not right.” June, seeing Mavis’s face where the door was ajar, said, “Oh, Mama, that’s Mavis Staples, she’s Mrs. Bob Dylan, don’t you know?” She added, “Come on in, Mavis.”
“Can we go somewhere we can talk private?” Mavis whispered. “Sure,” June replied. “Let’s go up to my room.” It was a room full of handmade quilts and pillowcases, which seemed a bit strange to a city girl like Mavis, but the cross and scripture quotations on the wall made her feel right at home. “What’s up?” June chirped brightly.
“I hope you don’t mind me coming here like this,” Mavis said, “but we were in Nashville last night, and I remembered our conversations at Newport, and I thought you were the one person who could understand what I’m going through.” June nodded and murmured affirmatively, and Mavis plunged onward. “Bobby’s changed, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“What’s got you worried?” June asked. “Is it the rock ‘n’ roll? Is it other women?”
“No, no, none of that. I like the rock ‘n’ roll; the way he does it sounds like church to me. It’s the drugs. When he left for Europe, he had that glassy shine to his eyes and he wouldn’t look straight at me. And I’m hearing that it has gotten worse in Europe.” With that, Mavis burst out crying and buried her damp face in June’s shoulder.
“What you need,” June eventually said, “is a strong cup of coffee and some chocolate-chip cookies. Just lie down here on my bed for a bit, and I’ll be right back.” By the time June had reclimbed the stairs, Mavis was dry-eyed and sitting on the edge of the quilted bed.
“I know you’ve been going through something similar with Johnny,” Mavis said, “and I was hoping you had some advice for me.”
“Well, it’s different,” June replied. “Johnny’s married to someone else, and Bobby’s married to you.”
“Oh, I know you’re sweet on him—and him on you. You couldn’t miss it in your faces.” Like a teenager who’s been found out in a deception, June dropped her smile and got serious. “How do you put up with it?” Mavis asked. “How do you get him to change?”
“You got to keep loving him and have faith that the change is coming,” June said earnestly. “You’ve got to hate the drugs and love the man. And you’ve got to stay close enough to know when he’s hit bottom and he’s ready to change. When that happens, you’ve got to be ready to swoop in and nurse him back to health.”
“How will I know?”
“When that pride goes out of his eyes and he looks like a child again.”
The two young women were quiet for a while, staring at the floor and then at each other. Suddenly June’s eyebrows leapt up and she blurted out, “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
“No, I mean, what?” a surprised and alarmed Mavis stammered. “I mean, how can you tell?”
“The same way you could tell about me and Johnny,” June said. “That glow. That’s part of why you’re so upset, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Mavis admitted bashfully. “That’s part of it. It makes everything more urgent.”
July 29, 1966, Madison, Wisc.
The Dylan/Staples Summer House
“Mavis! Mavis!” wailed Cleotha as she came running down the hallway in her furry slippers. “It’s the hospital on the phone. Bobby’s been hurt.”
Mavis looked up from the cradle holding her month-old baby, Ezekiel Dylan, and said, “What did you say?” as Cleotha burst into the bedroom.
“It’s the hospital,” she panted. “Bobby fell off his motorcycle and busted himself up. I told him not to ride that thing, but would he listen? No-siree.”
“Cleotha, slow down,” Mavis said. “What happened exactly?”
“He gone riding that deathtrap up on those country roads north of town and—boom!—he gone flying over the handle bars and busted himself to pieces. I told him; you know I told him. Him with a new baby and all, it serve him right.”
“What hospital is he at?” Mavis said in a slow, even voice, trying to get her sister to focus.
“They got him at University,” Cleotha said. “If I told him once, I told him a thousand times.”
“Cleotha, I need you to calm down and look me in the eye,” Mavis continued. Cleotha did. “Can you watch little Zeke while I go find Bobby at the hospital?”
“Yes, yes,” Cleotha said. “You go to your husband.”
As she was grabbing the car keys, Mavis said to herself, “This is the moment June told me about.”
When they brought Bobby home three days later, the damage was not as bad as they had feared. He had a broken collarbone, a concussion and some stitches. But he was also withdrawing from all the drugs that had been swimming in his blood system, and he lay in his bed as limp as a wash rag and, thanks to his incessant sweating, every bit as damp. Just as June had predicted, though, all the pride had gone out of his eyes, and he kept murmuring, “Mavis, I need you to help me.”
She did. Every time he woke up, she’d bring him sweet-potato soup and tea with honey. She prayed with him and read him passages from the New Testament and Kurt Vonnegut novels. She kept from him the reports in the press that he was dead or so badly disfigured that he’d never again appear on stage. Let them think the worst, she thought; maybe they’ll leave him alone for a while.
Two weeks after his accident, Bobby was able to stand up with a foam-rubber neck brace and walk to the bathroom by himself. Four weeks out he was able to walk to the dining room and eat at the table. Six weeks out he was able to play a few chords on the guitar as Mavis sang his songs to him. Twelve weeks out he announced to his wife, “I’m going to get together with the Hawks and play some music with them this afternoon.”
The Hawks decided to rent a house where they could hang out and work on some music. The house was in Sauk City on the Wisconsin River, and it was painted such a bright shade of orangish-pink that they nicknamed it the Big Peach.
The Hawks had driven from Toronto to Madison as soon as they heard about the accident. A few visits made it clear that Bobby was not going to die or suffer permanent damage, but neither was he going to be making music any time soon. But they liked Wisconsin, so the Hawks decided to rent a house where they could hang out and work on some music. The house was in Sauk City on the Wisconsin River, and it was painted such a bright shade of orangish-pink that they nicknamed it “The Big Peach.”
When he got home that evening, Mavis asked him how it had gone, and he said, “That’s really the way to make music: in somebody’s basement with the windows open and a dog lying on the floor. Why don’t you come with me tomorrow?” She asked Cleotha to babysit, and the next day she piled into the old Nash Rambler with Bobby, his guitar and typewriter. They parked in the driveway and walked around to the back of the house where a sliding door opened directly into the basement. Looking behind them, they could see the woods slope down to the river.
Garth Hudson was fiddling with an old Ampex tape machine next to a sleeping dog. Rick Danko was warming up on mandolin; Richard Manuel was behind the drums, and Robbie Robertson was trying to get a recalcitrant guitar amp to behave. Mavis was surprised, because she knew Rick only as a bassist and Richard only as a pianist, but she soon realized that was the point: Everyone could slip out of their accustomed role.
So she sat down at the piano and began playing the chords to “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Before she could start singing, Richard had sung the first verse, and Rick had joined him on the chorus. Garth joined on the organ for the second chorus, while Robbie and Bobby added guitars. For the third chorus, Mavis took over, and the guys were grinning so broadly that they shouted, “One more time!” and after she repeated the chorus, they shouted, “One more time!” again. By now the dog was wide awake.
After the song, Bobby said, “You guys keep playing; I’m going upstairs to do some typing.” He disappeared, and Mavis joined the Hawks in singing songs by Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and the Everly Brothers. Finally Bobby reappeared, waving in his hand a sheet of typed paper covered in pencil corrections.
“I got an idea from ‘Precious Lord,’” he said. “Listen to this.” He laid the paper on a taped-up cardboard box labeled “Robbie—books,” balanced his acoustic guitar on his right thigh and tentatively sang, “They say everything can be replaced, yet every distance is not near. So I remember every face of every man who put me here.” By the time he repeated the chorus for the third time, Mavis and Richard were singing the harmonies on “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.” The second time they played it, Garth had the tape reels spinning.
A month later later, when Pops, Pervis and Yvonne drove up from Chicago to visit, Mavis brought her father and siblings to the Big Peach. Pops gave in to the Hawks’ request that he sing “Freedom Highway,” and Bobby gave in to his father-in-law’s request to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But most exciting were the new songs: Robbie’s “Bessie Smith,” Pops’ “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around,” Pervis’s “Nothing Lasts Forever” and a whole slew of new Bobby songs: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Nothing Was Delivered,” “Sign of the Cross” and more. Some of them he sang himself; others were sung by Mavis, Pops or assorted Hawks.
Just before Thanksgiving, Levon Helm, the Hawks’ former drummer who had quit during the European tour, showed up at Big Peach and was welcomed back with open arms. At a huge Thanksgiving banquet at a rented hall in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen in nearby Spring Green, various Dylans, Staples and Hawks feasted on turkey, ham, chestnut stuffing, cornbread, asparagus, collard greens, and five kinds of pie.
On Monday, after all the guests had vacated the premises, Mavis and Bobby sat in the living room by a fire with Zeke nearby. Bobby murmured, “Thank you, Mavis.” “For what?” she said, a bit surprised. “For everything,” he said. He waved his arm at the hearth and cradle and added, “For this home, this family, my health and the music. Everything.”
April 28, 2017, New York, N.Y.
Basement Music From the Big Peach was Billboard’s No. 1 album for three weeks running, and “I Shall Be Released” and “The Weight” were both top-10 singles. But the full group never performed in public together. They were supposed to do a world tour in the summer of 1974, but Bob and Mavis separated the winter before. The reasons remain murky, but both have hinted in interviews that he was itching to hit the road again, while she wanted to spend more time at home.
In any case, Dylan toured with the Band (aka the Hawks) in 1974 and released his divorce album, Empty Bed and Knotted Pine in 1975. Some of the songs were bitter, but it was impossible not to hear a plea for reconciliation with Mavis in this verse from “Knotted Up in Blue”: “Abraham was watching/ On the white marble stair./ The King said he would join us/ Anytime, anywhere./ Church bells were ringing/ On Chicago’s South Side,/ But in the hills of Wisconsin,/ I broke and almost died./ She begged me to stay,/ But I had to travel on./ Down that lonesome highway I was gone,/ But our paths would cross again, I knew / Knotted up in blue.”
Both Dylan and the Staple Singers participated in the Band’s Last Waltz show and album, but the producers carefully managed the logistics so Dylan and his ex-wife would never cross paths. Ironically, he made his most explicitly religious recordings, 1979’s Climbing Up Calvary and 1980’s Blessed, while divorced from his gospel-singer wife. But even on Climbing Up Calvary, the song “Long Lost Angel” was unmistakably addressed to his ex-wife: “Long lost angel, once you were there/ With your dark shining face and halo of hair./ Now I am drowning, please reach out your hand/ And pull me back home to your father’s dry land?”
It was hearing those records that prompted Mavis to contact her ex-husband. The success of Basement Music From the Big Peach had helped the Staple Singers land a contract with Stax Records, and the funky, country-soul feel of that earlier record helped them score hit singles with “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” and “Let’s Do It Again.” But after Mavis’s painful divorce, the group seemed to lose momentum and never had a pop hit again.
Mavis and Bob had dinner in Chicago two days after Christmas in 1980, said the Chicago Tribune. A month later, they spent a weekend in Madison, the Associated Press reported. A month after that, invitations went out for the second wedding of Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples at the New Nazareth Baptist Church, Reverend Jesse Jackson presiding, on April 20, 1980. At the reception, Mavis played peacekeeper in the feud between Robertson and Helm, both of whom attended the ceremony. They patched things up and agreed to reassemble the Dylan/Staple Family Band for one more project.
That album, Taliesen, was released in early 1981. We will have more to say about that when the expanded-version box set is released next year. In the meantime, you can hear Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples when their Never Ending Tour stops in a town near you.