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Shemekia Copeland, Modern Guardian Of The Blues

Whenever we talk about "guardians of the blues," imagining a guy with a guitar is a common default. Whether or not there's any truth to that cliché, the music's stewardship also belongs to someone like Shemekia Copeland, whose voice and presence embody it.

A force on the ground since the mid-1990s, when she was attending Teaneck High School in New Jersey, Copeland has distinguished herself as one of the leading blues artists of our time, not just for the vibrant authority in her singing but also for her choices with style and repertory, up to and including the 2020 album Uncivil War.

In this episode of Jazz Night in America, we'll hear Copeland perform some of that material from Dizzy's Club in New York, along with portions of her firecracker set at the 2021 Exit Zero Jazz Festival. And we'll learn more about Copeland's blues birthright, established by her father — he was one of those guys with a guitar, the late Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland.

We'll also hear a testimonial from Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglaur, who signed Shemekia at 17, along with insights about her place in the culture from noted music scholar Tammy Kernodle. But the primary voice in our show, whether speaking or singing, is rightly Copeland's. "I know I sound like a 1980s beauty queen talking about, 'All I want is world peace,' " she says. "But in all honesty, that's what I want. I want my kid to grow up in a world where we accept each other, love each other and we don't have all this horrible divisiveness."

Musicians:

Shemekia Copeland, vocals; Arthur Neilson, guitar; Ken "Willie" Scandlyn, guitar; Kevin Jenkins, bass; Robin Gould, drums

Video set list:

  • "Walk Until I Ride" (John Hahn, Will Kimbrough)
  • "Devil's Hand" (Johnny Copeland)
  • "Big Brand New Religion" (Chris Long,  Oliver Wood)
  • "Ghetto Child" (Johnny Copeland)
  • Radio set list:

  • Shemekia Copeland, "Big Brand New Religion" (Chris Long, Oliver Wood)
  • Shemekia Copeland, "Devil's Hand" (Johnny Copeland) 
  • Johnny Copeland, "Cold Outside" (Johnny Copeland) 
  • Shemekia Copeland, "Ghetto Child" (Johnny Copeland) 
  • Ruth Brown, "Teardrops From My Eyes" (Rudolph Toombs)
  • Ruth Brown, "Fine Brown Frame" (Guadalupe Cartiero, J. Mayo Williams)
  • Shemekia Copeland, "Love Song" (Johnny Copeland) 
  • Shemekia Copeland, "Would You Take My Blood" (John Hahn, Will Kimbrough)
  • Shemekia Copeland, "Walk Until I Ride" (John Hahn, Will Kimbrough)
  • Credits:

    Writer and Producer: Alex Ariff; Video Producers: Mitra I. Arthur, Nikki Birch; Host: Christian McBride; Videographers: Bronson Arcuri, Mitra I. Arthur, Nikki Birch, Nickolai Hammar; Video Editor: Mitra I. Arthur; Production Assistant: Sarah Kerson; JALC Music Engineer: Rob Macomber; Exit Zero Jazz Festival Engineer: Tyler McClure; Exit Zero Jazz Festival Mixing Engineer: Corey Goldberg; Audio Mastering for Video: Andy Huether; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Producer: Nikki Birch, Katie Simon; Supervising Editor: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Produced in partnership with WRTI, Philadelphia. Special thanks to Michael Kline, Paul Siegel, and John Hahn.


    Stream Jazz Night In America on Spotify and Apple Music, updated monthly.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.