CHICAGO — When formidable Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland released the single “Uncivil War” a few months ago, she wasn’t just lamenting a nation increasingly at odds with itself.
She also was giving listeners a hint of what was to come: an intensely felt, newly released album by that name that’s packed with social commentary.
For most of the tracks on “Uncivil War” (on Chicago’s Alligator Records label) deal with various aspects of our troubled times, from systemic racism to climate change, from domestic abuse to gun violence. Yet the tone of these songs, most with lyrics by Copeland’s longtime manager-songwriter-friend John Hahn, is more convincing than confrontational, more open-armed than clenched fist.
Combine the poetry of Hahn’s lyrics with the deep-blues music of guitarist Will Kimbrough (and others), who produced the album, and you have one of the boldest and most persuasive recordings of Copeland’s already distinguished career.
Or as she put it to me in June, when she released the title track, “My mama used to always say you can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. And I always feel like in order to get someone’s ear, you have to come with a message of peace and hope first, and maybe you can hope to change someone.”
Regardless of whether Copeland changes hearts and minds with “Uncivil War,” there’s no question she makes a compelling case for the views she holds (lyricist Hahn speaks with Copeland extensively before writing songs reflecting her perspectives).
For starters, there’s the title cut, in which she sings: “Uncivil war, uncivil war/How long must we fight this uncivil war?/Same old wounds, we opened before/Nobody wins an uncivil war.”
That’s probably a sentiment that most of us can agree with, but elsewhere Copeland takes on a more pointed tone. She opens the album with “Clotilda’s On Fire” (by Hahn and Kimbrough), an unflinching indictment of the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S.
In Hahn and Kimbrough’s “Money Makes You Ugly,” she sings: “The ice is melting / And my lawn’s on fire / World’s got a fever / Getting higher and higher.”
In “Apple Pie and a .45,” also by Hahn and Kimbrough, she sings: “We go to church on Sunday / Like the Lord told us to / Til the day a madman / Shot up all the pews.”
And in “She Don’t Wear Pink,” by Hahn and Webb Wilder, Copeland tells of a young woman whose “favorite dolly was G.I. Jane,” the song a plea for gay rights.
All of this would amount to just so many words if not for the endlessly changing character of Copeland’s vocals, which sound imploring on Hahn and Kimbrough’s “Walk Until I Ride” (about racism), incendiary on “Money Makes You Ugly” and positively buoyant on “She Don’t Wear Pink.” Hers is one of the great instruments in contemporary blues, and producer-guitarist Kimbrough provides precisely the gutsy, real-blues accompaniments it deserves.
Yet amid all the potent social commentary, Copeland also gives listeners a few changes of pace. In “Dirty Saint” (by Hahn and Kimbrough), she pays warm homage to the late Dr. John, who produced her “Talking to Strangers” album. Tunes such as “No Heart at All” and “In the Dark” take on eternal blues themes of love gone wrong.
Copeland closes the album on a softly cathartic note, with the hopeful “Love Song,” by the late Texas bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland, her father.
It’s all a testament to Shemekia Copeland’s art, which deepens with each new recording.
NEA Jazz Masters
The nation’s highest jazz honor, the annual National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, will go to three musicians and one jazz advocate in 2021.
Each will receive $25,000 plus a tribute concert, which will be held online on April 22, 2021, and will be produced by the NEA in collaboration with SFJAZZ. The winners are:
Terri Lyne Carrington. She "has remained a powerhouse drummer in jazz for four decades but also has vigorously turned her attention over the last 15 years to empowering the next generation,” noted the NEA in a statement.
Albert “Tootie” Heath. He’s a drummer and educator who “has played with jazz musicians from John Cotlrane to Ethan Iverson and performed on more than a hundred recordings,” said the NEA.
Henry Threadgill. The multi-instrumentalist and composer “has been on the leading edge of avant-garde jazz with his original compositions,” noted the NEA of a composer who won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2016.
Phil Schaap. The jazz historian will receive the 2021 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy. “As curator at the Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City,” said the NEA, "he created the Swing University educational program.
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