John Sieger
Sieger On Songs

“Why Am I Treated So Bad?”

The Staple Singers classic is one of the most gloriously soulful songs you’ll ever hear.

By - Feb 28th, 2014 12:50 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
The Best of The Staple Singers

The Best of The Staple Singers

It’s ten hours to the launch of Milwaukee Gospel: Jubilee at the Pabst and I’m at my computer reading a review of Greg Kot‘s biography of The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There.” If I may be honest with you, I’m jealous. Writing a book about the Staple Singers is something I would love to do, if only to meet the legendary Mavis Staples. One of the revelations in the book is the news of a less than sanctified affair between Mavis and Bob Dylan in the late ’60s. He told Roebuck, her father, known to the world as Pops, “I want to marry your daughter.” Who doesn’t?

That would have been a heck of a wedding reception, if only for the music. I first heard the Staple Singers in the late ’60s as my tastes were still moving from British invasion to the American gospel, blues and soul that inspired my boys Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, et al. The Staples were the most popular gospel group of that time and the first to cross over to a pop audience when they recorded their message songs for Stax, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Do yourself a favor (after you read this) and go to Youtube to listen to those songs. You’ll be very glad you did.

The recordings they made before their days with Stax are astounding from top to bottom. The sound of Pops’ guitar, a Fender Telecaster through a Fender amp with the Vibrato and Reverb cranked, is a deep foreboding rumble that travels from the north of Mississippi where he was born, all the way to Chicago in a single leap. It was in Chicago where he worked in meatpacking plants and steel mills, that he started to sing with his children. What they sang was textbook church harmony. The voices shift in a pattern that is as spooky as Pops’ guitar and the way that they change from one chord to the next is far from random.

It has been my experience that, although the rules of gospel harmony are hard for some of its practitioners to put into words, they are solid as stone tablets and embedded in the singers at an early age. It’s not right until everyone says so and then who cares what you call it?

It’s hard to say what makes the Staples so distinctive — but I am drawn to the tenderness of Pop’s voice backed by the toughness of Mavis, Pervis, Yvonne and Cleotha. When Pop is singing lead, there is a gentleness and sadness that is almost unbearable. When Mavis takes over, the authority in her voice is total. You feel like you are being questioned in the back room of the police station under a very bright light. Is this the gospel version of good cop/bad cop?

The album that introduced me to them was a collection of hits. Their first was “Uncloudy Day.” I think it may have also been the first track on the record. When I heard it I wondered where this music had been all my life. The album continued inspiring new feelings of awe, track by track, not a sleeper among them. Their version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” makes all others unnecessary. “Move Along Train” and “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again”… where did this stuff come from? But when I heard, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” it was over. I knew I would be wearing holes in this recording. This song was said to be Dr. Martin Luther King‘s favorite and he often requested it when they sang at his rallies. He had good taste.

It starts with Pop’s tremolo guitar. The only other instruments are bass and drums — very sparse. He preaches. “My friends, you know this old world is in a bad condition. Why, just the other day I saw a group of little children, tryin’ to ride a school bus.” The preaching crosses the line from spoken to sung ever so subtly, with more than a hint of blues, and he continues, “And by them being of a different nationality, (one way of putting it) they wasn’t allowed to ride the bus.” He takes a breath and sets the stage for the rest of the group, “Now I imagine if you would ask them about this matter, they would have a word like this to say.” This is where you need to grip the arms of your chair because you are about to be rocked, full force, by the Staples.

Why, am I treated so bad?

Why, am I treated so bad?

You know I’m all alone as I sing this song,

Hear my call, I’ve done nobody wrong

But I’m treated so bad

Next verse — and I stand corrected after hearing this a thousand times. I always thought it was “the master’s name,” but I like this better.

I’m gonna walk out in the master lane

Things I do, they seem to be in vain

You may be blind, you may be lame,

Walk on out in the master lane

Though you treat me so bad

Performing at Montreaux in 1981, Pops preaches a little in the middle. He’s a little boy again in Mississippi and asking his mother about the moaning he heard in church. She tells him, “Son… when you moan, even the devil don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Ooh ooh ooh ooooooh

Ooh ooh ooh oooooooh

Oooh ooh ooh oooooh ooh ooh oohhh

You may me blind, you may be lame

Walk on out in the master lane

Though you treat me so bad

Pops is gone now. Sadly, I only got to hear The Staples for a couple short songs at Summerfest years ago. I was booked at a nearby stage and had to leave. Since then, I have seen Mavis a couple times and was surprised to see how tiny she seemed! The difference in height between her current bassist and herself has to be well over a foot. So it was a revelation to see her backing him up with some spirited scat singing during an instrumental passage. He would have looked frightened if I hadn’t noticed that smile on his face. I laughed and sat there, wishing it was me.

Please click on the Montreaux link now or later, whenever you can. There is nothing that I can write that will compare to the beauty of this track. As Elvis Costello famously said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” You can’t listen to The Staple Singers and feel bad.

“Why Am I Treated So Bad?” © 1966 Robuck Staple Pub. by Staple Music

Veteran musician and song writer John Sieger writes a regular column analyzing classic songs and what makes them great. 

0 thoughts on “Sieger On Songs: “Why Am I Treated So Bad?””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for another compelling essay!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Yeah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *