By Eric Althoff
The blues musician Shemekia Copeland took a necessary break from the road to give birth to and begin raising her son. However, she had no way of knowing the furlough would be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s funny because I had been taking time off since I had him, and I was just ready to go back to work in 2020,” Copeland said from her home in Oceanside, California, where she lives with her son and his father. “I was just getting myself prepared to go to work, and then of course COVID hit. I never got a chance to do any of that. I don’t want to say I’ve been completely off in the last five years, but I’ve been on a very light schedule.”
No more! Copeland, who hails from Chicago, is ready to be back in front of audiences, including at the Columbia Pike Blues Festival in West Arlington this coming Saturday, June 18. That gig, as with so many others, has been a long time coming.
“I am ever so excited, I can’t even tell you,” Copeland said. “You’re going to be seeing a whole lot of very, very happy musicians—we get to do what we love to do. We’re ready to play because we just haven’t been able to.”
Copeland, whom no less than Forbes has dubbed “Queen of the Blues,” performs with a power in her voice that is somehow reminiscent of both Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin—with even a bit of the full-throated fire of Janis Joplin thrown in for good measure. Her style is pure Chicago—uptempo and energetic, but always keeping at the fore that the blues is about some of the more difficult aspects of life, particularly for Black Americans.
Case in point: On her most recent record, “Uncivil War,” Copeland none-too-subtly decried America’s gun culture on the song “Apple Pie And A .45,” written by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough. She released the song in 2020; the ensuing two years have seen only more deadly mass shootings around the country.
“It’s one of those things that no one wants to talk about or do anything about,” Copeland said of those ongoing tragedies such as the recent multiple shooting deaths in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. “It’s shameful…but you know what, I’m going to keep talking about it until somebody does something about it.”
Now that her own son is in school, Copeland is even more anxious about America’s violence problem. She says she has been “on edge” since Sandy Hook in 2012, and she’s also written another anti-gun violence song on the next album she’ll be releasing this summer.
“I don’t want to live in anger, but it’s very upsetting to think about,” she said. “I think about those babies every day. Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame on every single politician!”
Another searing tune from “Uncivil War” is “Clotilda’s on Fire,” a song about the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America. The vessel’s remains were discovered in the Mobile River in Alabama in 2019, and the blustery song opens Copeland’s last album.
“I think we were all anxious to talk about it—not just about the Clotilda itself but the descendants of the Clotilda that are still there in Africatown,” Copeland said about the historic Black neighborhood in Mobile. “Education is so important to me, so what I learn, I want to put out there into the universe.”
“Uncivil War” also features a cover of the Rolling Stones tune “Under My Thumb.” In its original form, Mick Jagger sings plaintively about a woman who perhaps has put him through the ringer. For her own version, Copeland opted to flip the gender script of the song’s narrator.
“I’m a big fan of the Rolling Stones, but I gotta say, I like a woman singing that song better,” Copeland chuckled. “I thought it was a great way of turning the tables.”
With returning to life on the road, Copeland has had to readjust to a post-pandemic profession. This includes sometimes bringing her son with her when he’s not in school, and thus, the tot will be traveling with his mother to her summer performances.
Asked if she programs her setlists in advance, Copeland says she tries to do so but often veers off the “plan”; fortunately, she has a rather flexible, and patient, backup band. “They make fun of me: Even if we try to make a setlist, I don’t go by it,” she laughed. “I’m rebellious against my own setlist. It’s kind of crazy!”
Copeland says her set at the Columbia Pike Blues Festival will be a mixture of her catalog as well as some new tunes from her forthcoming album, “Done Come Too Far,” which releases Aug. 19. In addition to reteaming with such songwriters as John Hahn and Will Kimbrough, the new album will feature songs penned by the likes of Dr. John; such luminaries as Sonny Landreth, Cedric Burnside, Oliver Wood, Kenny Brown, and Aaron Lee Tasjan lend their talents to “Done Come Too Far.”
Copeland encourages other up-and-coming musicians to follow their passions and persist in chasing their dreams. However, she’s quick to point out that they shouldn’t simply follow what’s new or hip. “It’s always about what’s new, what’s new, what’s new, and I think our ears are getting deadened to very simple sounds,” she said. “Just keep on putting out good music.”
Copeland says the tight turnaround of her touring schedule will undermine any chances to do any sightseeing in the DMV next weekend. Plus, she will have her son with her on the mini-tour that will take her to Chicago in the days prior to the Arlington festival before she heads back to the West Coast.
“My little guy will be out there too, so if you have some [kids], you can bring them,” she said with a laugh, adding that musicians such as herself are “very happy to be on stage and performing for the people.”
“That’s what we live for,” she said.
Shemekia Copeland will headline the Columbia Pike Blues Festival in West Arlington, Virginia, on Saturday June 18. To learn more and purchase tickets, go to https://www.columbia-pike.org/bluesfest-2022/.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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