Shemekia Copeland Refuses to Get Stuck in "Mississippi Mud"

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Shemekia Copeland at STLBluesweek (Photo by Reed Radcliffe, TripleRPhotography.com)

Editor’s Note: This is an incredibly special article, not just because in the minutes after we released it, we discovered Shekemia was nominated for a Grammy, but also because this is part of “dual articles” about the dynamic Copeland and tomorrow’s article with her long time manager and songwriter, John Hahn. 

Shemekia Copeland has known John Hahn since she was eight years old, and John was a Madison Avenue ad man recording Hanover Trust commercials with her father, the late blues singer Johnny Copeland. Hahn went on to produce Johnny’s comeback album, Flyin’ High and eventually became Shemekia’s manager when she first recorded in the 90s. With his guidance, Shemekia has become a respected blues performer whose presence on the festival circuit is almost ubiquitous.

In the last year and a half she was anointed Queen of The Blues at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival by the late Blues Queen Koko Taylor’s daughter, Cookie. She played a high profile White House gig with B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, and Jeff Beck, televised for PBS. She performed an homage to late guitarist Hubert Sumlin at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with guitarists Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, and Derek Trucks, and, a crowning achievement, Shemekia recently released her most mature album yet, 33 1/3.

The album features guest appearances by Buddy Guy and J. J. Gray. She covers, as she always does, one song by her dad, “One More Time,” along with Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News,” Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and J. J. Gray’s “A Woman.” She also records several jewels on this album; four songs written by John Hahn. “Lemon Pie” is an indictment of politicians who wave from the window of their trains at the rest of us who are eating bitter lemon pie for the poor. “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” is a graphic exposé of a woman whose bruises are as blue as the faded tattoo on her man’s arm. “Somebody Else’s Jesus” concerns a preacher full of hate who waves a Bible like a shotgun in the air. “Mississippi Mud” rails against blues singers stuck in the past: You know it sounded sweet underneath that delta sky/But he never even notice the world had passed him by.

Not since Leiber and Stoler wrote hits for The Coasters in the mid-50s has a white songwriter so captured the essence of the black experience – no, the universal experience – as it relates to contemporary issues as opposed to resurrecting tired clichés from the blues lexicon. Tattoos and phony preachers have replaced the killing floor, and a white ad man who’s known Shemekia most of her life has given her the ammunition to live up to her name as the new Queen of the Blues.

Don Wilcock for the American Blues Scene: This is your most mature record yet, and I don’t know if John told you, but I interviewed him for about an hour and a half about his role in writing the songs on it, and he and I have a lot in common. He came from a privileged white environment. Now he’s writing songs for you. In fact, he sent me a quote. He quotes you as saying, “John may look white, but in his chest beats the heart of a very angry black woman.”

Shemekia Copeland: It’s true. Well, you know he’s known me since I was eight years old. We talk every day on the phone, probably a few times a day. He knows what’s going on in my mind, and he knows what’s going on in my head because we have all these conversations, and we talk about everything. We don’t just talk about manager stuff. We talk about everything. All the things a woman has to deal with and go through, he’s right there with me on all of this stuff. We talk about politics. We talk about religion. I mean all to those things we’ve been talking about it for years. And the funny thing is the more mature I am getting about it, it just makes it a whole lot easier for him to write things for me. So, it’s really cool.

What was it like from your perspective to see him come in and pick your dad up and kind of dust him off and record Flyin’ High with him?

Well, I was really young then (released in 1992). What I remember from it was this crazy white guy coming to Harlem. White people didn’t come to Harlem then. Here I am. I’m thinking, “Oh, my God. Here he is. He’s got this sweet, innocent lily white wife Cindy whom I absolutely adore, and she’s blonde, blue-eyed, and they’ve pulling up in a yellow cab in Harlem, and they’re gonna get killed.”

We’re having dinner, and bullets are flying outside, but they loved us so much that they didn’t care. They came anyway. That’s what I remember about that time. I don’t so much remember all the details about him and my dad meeting and becoming friends and all of that stuff, but obviously I know they recorded an album together, and he hired Dad to do a bunch of commercials and things like that.

Did your dad ever say anything to you about, “Oh, this is a white guy that we can trust?”

Shemekia Copeland: No, never, because in my neighborhood the only white people that ever came to the neighborhood were friends of my dad’s. My dad loved people, and he worked for all kinds of people, and his band members would always come up, and he had a couple of white guys in his band. So it was never an issue. It wasn’t even anything that we talked about.

So, how did John end up being your manager?

Well, John says that when I was eight and I was running around with my friends before I was doing any kind of singing that anyone thought that would mean anything, I would go up to him and I would tell my friends, “Hey, this is Mr. John Hahn, and he’s my manager,” and he just thought, “Okay, this is crazy,” and he always says he stopped laughing right about the time I opened for the Rolling Stones. (2004)

John tells me you reject some of his songs. How do you decide which songs you’re going to embrace and ones you’re going to throw back at him?

Well, songs are very important to me. I always think this is something I might possibly have to sing for the rest of my life, and I have to be able to jump inside of it and feel it and become it. Each song when you’re on stage if you’re doing 13 songs, you have to jump inside each one of those songs and perform it, and I look at every song that way. Will I be able to do that? And sometimes it’s just not what I want to do at the time, not what I want to be singing at that time. I love blues so much. I don’t think people understand. John said to me on the phone yesterday that if people knew how much you cared about this music, they would give you a Keeping The Blues Alive Award, and I started laughing because I’m always preaching that this is not about me. This is not about me. This is about the music.

At the end of the day I’m just a drop in the bucket of the whole genre of people who came before me and people who are going to come after me, and I want to lead the way and show people that blues just like every other genre can evolve and grow and move forward based on subject matter and music as long as you change it a little bit and do stuff that represents the presence.

Is that what “Mississippi Mud” means to you because it seems to me you’re saying in that song that you don’t want to get stuck in the mud. You want to keep moving forward.

Exactly. And you know it’s not just about music. It’s about forward thinking in general. It’s about right now we live in a world where I cannot believe still how many backward thinking people we have.

Yeah, I know. I thought 50 years ago we’d be way past this by the time I was my age.

No, and there are so many people who are just like, no, no, no! And they refuse to move forward or think forward, and it’s really sad, and that for me is what this album is about in general.

I always say “Lemon Pie” to me represents the fact that our ancestors built this country on their backs so that their children would be able to do something simple and that something simple is get a job and buy a house and raise their families. That’s the something simple, and that’s being taken away from us every day with the way the world is being set up. The reason that is happening is because people are stuck in the Mississippi mud, and they believe in “Somebody Else’s Jesus.” Because the reason people are coming to be stuck and not forward thinking and being behind is because they believe in some sort of God which I don’t even know what God they’re talking about that is apparently telling them to believe these things, and it drives me crazy. I’m like really?

So, you’re ready to sing those three songs for the rest of your life? The only one out of the bunch you haven’t mentioned is “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo.” I’m praying to God you never went through any of that.

(Chuckle) You know, the thing is I think if you’ve been in a relationship, male or female, you’ve been through it. Not the exact situation, but basically it’s about getting out of a situation and moving forward. This is just another way of telling a story, but anybody that’s been in a situation they want to get out of can relate to this song. That’s why I love it so much. Even though it’s a dark situation, it’s still a song about a woman overcoming and moving forward and getting out of something.

What was it like for you to be in the White House singing for the President?

It was a thrill. I couldn’t believe it. There I was standing on line with Buddy Guy and a bunch of people all getting ready to get our photographs taken, and Buddy Guy said, “From the cotton fields to the White House.” He was just shocked that he couldn’t believe it, and then I’m having this conversation with B. B. King who had been at the White House for every sitting President since Ford, he had a picture with him and the Pope.

I know. He talked to me about that.

I was like, oh, my God, but even he, being in his 80s, was happy and just honored to be there with Obama, and it was just surreal. It was amazing. It’s a wonderful feeling to be a part of all of that, to watch how everybody felt about the situation. Not just me, but Buddy, B.B., Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck. Everybody had a warmness to them being there. And it was obvious, and you could tell and it was very cool.

What was cool for me was to watch on PBS that Obama knew the lyrics to all the songs.

He’s a music fan.

Yeah, but I mean to have a President of the United States that knows blues songs. It was like, yeah, maybe things are going to get better.

The coolest part was we had to rehearse there all day Monday. The show was Tuesday, and that day, Monday, was President’s Day. I’m guessing the President had the day off. We were rehearsing, and he just came down and was hanging out at our rehearsal for like an hour so unlike most people ’cause they say that never happens. Unlike most people, we got a chance to be with him on two separate occasions which is rare. So I think he had a warm feeling in his heart for us guys. He came down right when Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy were on stage rehearsing, and I always say, ‘They must have been so loud,” that he just said, “I might as well go down and see what’s going on.”

I just get the impression that he’s a real person, that he’s not on stage.

Well, let me tell you something. My bullshit-o-meter is spot on. I am the Queen of the bullshit-o-meter, and when I meet people I can pretty much read them instantly, and I’ve never been wrong about people when I meet them. I know if they’re good. I know if they’re bad. I just know, and that’s what’s gotten me through this far, and when I met him and Michelle Obama I could tell right away how genuine they were, and that they actually care about this country regardless of any mistakes he or she might make, they actually do care, and that I could feel and I know that that’s the truth.

Did either one of them say anything to you?

Oh, God yeah. I did a blues in schools with Michelle the day before. We were talking about food and juice and all kinds of stuff. She’s a sweetie pie, and she thanked me for doing the blues in schools because education is so important to her, and I talked to Obama about where I live in Chicago, and I told them that they should come over to my house for dinner. (giggle)

The song on your new album “Somebody Else’s Jesus” sounds so much like Keith Richards on guitar.

Yeah, it does actually. Yup, it actually does.

I love the driving guitars on that particular song. It’s one of my favorites off the new album.

Cool. I love it. I really do love it, and I can’t wait to perform it. Get out there. I’m doing a Dylan song that I completely love. It’s my more vulnerable side which I like, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

Do you have a history with that song? Do you remember when you first heard it?

Shemekia Copeland at STLBluesweek (Photo by Reed Radcliffe, TripleRPhotography.com)

No, I don’t, but I remember listening to it recently within the last couple years and just falling in love with it.

What goes through your mind when you do one of your dad’s songs like “One More Time?”

Doing my dad’s songs comes so natural to me it’s unbelievable. It’s nothing I have to think about. I just do it.

How about Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News?”

Now, I can tell you the first time I heard his voice. As a kid I can remember my parents having an 8-track of Sam Cooke that I forced them to play over and over and over and over again. When they wouldn’t play it, I would cry.

What was it about him that got you because you were pretty young to have gotten into him at that age.

I was obsessed. I was obsessed with him and Otis. It was something about their voices I just had to listen to over and over and over again. And I know now that it’s just because they were special. The one thing I loved about those guys from that time, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, O. V. Wright, Jackie Wilson was that they all had their own sound. Unlike the artist of today, they didn’t all try to sound just alike, all those guys were all so different.
To me that’s what makes you special when people know your voice when they hear it. I don’t want to sound like anybody else. To me, that would be a curse. So, I don’t want to sound like anyone else. I want to sound like me, but the artists of today I think they just want to sound different. I don’t know who anybody is. I feel so sold.

My niece, she’s 16. She laughs at me. She says, “Auntie, you don’t know this, you don’t know that.” Yesterday, we were in the car and she was like, “Play something for me,” and obviously I turned on the rock and roll station in the car, and she said, “That’s not what I meant.” I don’t know who any of these people are out there. I couldn’t tell you one song from the other. To me there’s no difference between them. I don’t know the difference between a Katy Perry song or a Lady Gaga song. I have no clue.

What’s it been like to wear the mantel of Koko Taylor’s Queen of the Blues? Is there a down side to that?

Well, you know, I try not to even think of it. I adored Koko. She was such a great friend of mine, and I love her so much, not just because she was such an amazing artist, but because she had just a fantastic heart. She was just a wonderful, amazing person, and to me she will always be just the queen of the blues. It’s just that simple. That’s just how I feel about it. Honored am I for them to give me the crown and say, “Yes, we think you can fill these shoes.” Of course I am. A wonderful thing.

Especially coming from her daughter, Cookie.

Yeah, but I’m young, but the one thing Cookie said to me that stuck was, “We know you can’t do what Koko did or what Ruth Brown did or what Big Mama Thornton did, but you’re doing what you do, and that’s what we want you to continue to do.”

How I feel about it, they paved the way. Now I’m doing my own thing and to me to try to – people always say to me, “Why don’t you do a Koko Taylor record?” Why don’t you do an Etta James record?” Why don’t you do this kind of record or that kind of record?” And I’m always saying, “They already did that. They already did that. Why can’t you people strive to do something different? Why can’t you try and find your own identity? Why can’t – Goddamn it – you let me find my own identity without you tellin’ me what you think I should be doing? Come on!”

But we live in a world, like I said, they want to compare you to this one or that one, and they want you to do certain things, and that’s what they want you to stick with because it suits them and because I think people are afraid of change, and I’m sure there are bands or people out there who would be happy with me making the same exact record over and over again. I’m not happy with that. I don’t want that for myself. Let me grow, and let me find out who I am, and what I wanna do, and that’s what I’ve been doing.

I wrote Buddy Guy’s biography 20 years ago, and have known him for 20 years, more than that. He seems to be a guy who at 75 is very open to change, is very open to new things. Did you find that to be true?

Well, I haven’t worked with him in the studio to know, okay, what he’s willing to do or what he’s willing to try to venture out and say something like that. What I can say about watching him on “Tattoo” was that he was so eager to try different things and do new things which I can say that I don’t know if I’d expect that from somebody his age, but he was like, “Let me try with this.” Or “let me try with a wa-wa pedal,” or “Let me run it this way. Let me do that,” and I was really impressed by that. I thought, “Wow, this is really cool. He actually gives a shit about this song, and about how it sounds, and the outcome of it. He didn’t just come in and play on it and say, “Ok, I’m done.”

The Hubert Sumlin benefit in Harlem, what was that like?

Well, for me it was cool to be playing at the Apollo. I grew up just a couple blocks from there. It was cool to be there. Being there with all those guitar players was like it was just a strange feeling because here I am the only actual singer there, being out front and stuff. It was like wow. Sometimes I just feel like it would be so nice if these people would put the guitar down and come out front and actually entertain the people, but especially in the finale I was like, wow. Here I am out here singing the song, and everybody else I thought was just standing there hiding behind their guitar and stuff like that.

Who was on stage in the finals?

Mmm (pause) Okay, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Vivino, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Doyle Bramhall, I mean everybody, the whole world.

Holy cow. That must have been a train wreck.

Yeah, I mean it was just loud and crazy as we were there to represent a guitar player. Obviously that’s what it was about, and I was so happy to see all those people come out to support Hubert, but it was a cool experience. I got a chance to sing with Buddy Guy and be on stage with Buddy. It was really cool. It was a cool experience, but I’m just kinda over all the guitar players, that’s all.

I hear ya.

I am. Not to sound crazy and bitter, but in the ’20s it was all about female singers being entertainers and going out and entertaining the people and musicians were just kind of in the background of that, and when they electrified guitar, it became all about guitar players, and it became a guitar world. Sometimes I feel bad for John because so often times he gets told, “Oh, this is not a blues show,” but they have every blues guitar player in the country on the show, but when it comes to having me they’ll say, “Oh, this is not a blues show, and he’ll say, “Shemekia is a blues singer, but that’s not all she does.” It’s like I was telling John, it’s like trying to become part of a 100-year-old golf club that they don’t want any – that’s not like themselves to be in. And that’s what it’s tryin’ to become, and it’s amazing. It’s amazing.

Do you think this album will push you through to the other side on some of that and get over some of that?

Hell, no. No, I have to pave my own way. I have to do my own thing. I can’t be a part of their club, so I’ll be a part of my own. I’ll make my own club.

Well, I’ll tell you what I think this album is gonna do for you, and that is that there’s a lot of concern that I hear in the blues community about the music and the lyrics of today’s songs not being as important as the guitar, and the lyrics copying the kind of lyrics that went down when Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson first came to Chicago and were recording for Chess and you’re breaking that mold particularly with the songs that John has written for this album. This is contemporary blues, contemporary African American feelings about what is going on in the world, and I think these are terrific songs.

Well, thank you. I appreciate that, and that’s what I’m trying o accomplish here, and I’m glad you get it. I’m obviously aware that not everybody will, and I’m totally okay with that. That’s what I’m saying about paving my own way. I realize I can’t be a part of the club, but you know I never have been, so it’s ok for me. I feel like I’m an outcast and you know what? There’s no place I would rather be than right there. The one good – I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from Mac Rebennac, Dr. John, my Godfather. I love him so much. He said to me, don’t try to conform to the music business. Let the music business conform to you.

Yeah, he’s right.

And you know what? I speak those words to myself all the time. I say them to other people all the time because it’s the truth. I’m not gonna try to conform to this business so I can get this award or that award or get respected by this person or that person. I’m gonna do what I do that suits me and for my fans because they’re the ones that matter, the true ones who really do love this music and wanna hear something different.

Find Shemekia Copeland and get 33 1/3 at her Official Website

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