Shemekia Copeland and Ronnie Baker Brooks Take a Class

In my experiences as student and now a college instructor, I have found that, although it is absurdly overpriced, American higher education effectively prepares students for the world of adult ideas. It fails, however, to prepare students for entering the world of adult emotions.

An emotional education is tougher to teach, and any teacher willing to try it must possess laughable levels of vanity and arrogance. My course, American Literature and Jazz and Blues Music, is designed to give an emotional education, and at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, I am, apparently the resident holder of grandiose confidence and ambition.

I designed and offered the course less out of pomposity, however, and more out of what I felt was a necessity. American culture saturates people of all ages with adolescent posturing and posing. Adults young and old never lack for encouragement to indulge their inner, yet ever fleeting teenage dream and desire. Indeed, adolescence is fun and intense, but it’s also marked by short-sightedness and frivolity.

Adult emotions require maturity, introspection, and intimacy of the kind currently under attack by reality television, much of popular music, and the Republican Party. A good college should, therefore, act as a non-dogmatic alternative by attempting to offer some insight into the internal contradiction in which joy and despair are forever locked into a two step that defines the adult world of love, loss, success, and defeat.

Along this line of thought, it seems that most college students go through their four-year education without learning anything about some of America’s greatest cultural creations, in this case: blues and jazz music. My idea to combine the writing of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Toni Morrison, and Stanley Crouch with the music that inspired them was, in essence, to play two melodies on the one instrument of the classroom.

In the Toni Morrison novel, Jazz, students could not only learn about the beautiful and brutal history of race in America, but also examine the subtle and profound differences between lust and love, between infatuation and inspiration. Similar insight into the battle for love and music emerges from Crouch’s novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome?, while Ellison and Murray delineate and an understanding of how to apply the blues idiom and ethic to an ordinary life.

Crouch writes that jazz is for “seekers and veterans of sophisticated feeling”, and Ellison writes that the blues is a “chronicle of pain expressed lyrically” that makes people feel good about themselves. Playing the blues is a way of overcoming the blues. Murray follows this thought to call the blues an “act of affirmation and purification ritual.”

Even though we still have a month left in the semester at this writing, I’m certain that the class peaked at the halfway point. On 1 March, Shemekia Copeland and Ronnie Baker Brooks talked with our class and played some blues for us. Copeland has one of the greatest voices in American Blues music. She has performed with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and The Rolling Stones, has released a bevy of critically acclaimed albums, and continues to electrify audiences around the world with her powerful vocal ability and range. Koko Taylor’s daughter recently crowned Copeland the “queen of the blues” at the Chicago blues festival.

Indeed, it’s for these reasons that President Obama invited her to perform at the White House for the “Red, White, and Blues” celebration of American blues music in February 2012. She was joined by Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Warren Haynes, and several other respected artists.

Ronnie Baker Brooks was a surprise guest – and a very pleasant one at that. His father, Lonnie Brooks, also played the blues, and Ronnie Baker has demonstrated with several studio albums and countless live performances that he has the skill, and more importantly the soul, of his father and all those blues legends that influenced his playing and performing.

Copeland and Brooks infected the room with joy and, what Dr. Cornel West calls, “existential freedom” – the condition of living in which one resists dread and despair by embodying an ecstatic celebration of human existence without affirming the prevailing reality. Existential freedom allows each person to stare into the darkness, yet somehow and someway, find the words, the voice, and the courage to sing a sweet song. That’s the blues.

Infection rates in my classroom were at an all time high when Copeland and Brooks performed the classic, “Let The Good Times Roll”, in the style made popular and famous by B.B. King and Bobby Bland. By the end of the performance all of the students were loudly singing along in call-and-response, while the college’s Dean – Robert Kase – who once played trumpet in the touring band of Sammy Davis Jr. – sang the loudest.

Copeland and Brooks also treated the audience with stirring and moving renditions of “Rock Me Baby”, “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Excuses”, and the Baker Brooks written “See You Hurt No More”. When singing the blues, Copeland showed that her voice is nothing less than volcanic and her delivery demonstrates an eruption out of her soul. I asked her about that passion, and specifically how she brings the same fire to songs like “Ghetto Child”, which her father wrote about a life of inner city poverty, and “Sholanda’s House of Beauty”, a song from her album produced by Dr. John, Talking To Strangers, about the comical conversations at a beauty shop.

She explained that her father wrote the song from the perspective of a man dealing with extreme racial oppression, and she sings it with the memory of what crack cocaine did to the Harlem in the ‘80s. “Sholanda’s” is about how the beauty shop in those same black neighborhoods is a communal institution of solidarity and support. Morrison depicted this as well, Jazz. The song and the book are both, according to Copeland and Brooks, “sides of the truth”. “Ronnie might write a song about falling for a big booty woman or my dad can write a song like ‘Ghetto Child’, but it’s about expressing the truth of your emotions and working through your pain, said Copeland.

Working through the pain became the key to unlocking what Ellison called the “mystery of the blues.” Ellison explained in his essay, “Blues People”, that even though most blues songs are about romantic problems and sexual frustrations, they take on a much grander and powerful meaning that seems to capture and encapsulate an essential truth about the human condition. (Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, Random House, May 2002) “The music is the same music – different message, but the same music,” Copeland explained when I asked her about the relationship between blues and gospel. There’s not only a sonic similarity, but also a spiritual similarity in that the genres of music explore what it takes to overcome. They turn to different sources, perhaps, but they have the same mission.

Copeland demonstrated the power of gospel with an a cappella performance of “If It Wasn’t For The Lord”. made the gospel song flow effortlessly into his own, gospel inspired, romantic love song, “See You Hurt No More”.

Ronnie Baker Brooks, Shemekia Copeland & David Masciotra – photo courtesy of Sun-Times Media

The blues tradition, inherited by their parents, is a “calling”, in their own words. “When you do what you love it’s not work,” said Copeland. What she loves doing, and what Brooks loves doing, is projecting a strong example of the courage it takes to live, and in their cases also “dance” in the shadow and the light.

Psychologist Carl Jung said that we all live in the shadow and the light. If we deny the existence of shadows, we lose our ability to differentiate between the shadow and light, and will forever live in the shadows without knowing it. The blues identifies a problem and finds a way to size up that problem, take the blows handed out by the problem, and fights back with pride, integrity, and dignity.

Many of Copeland’s songs — “Wild, Wild Woman”, When a Woman’s Had Enough”, and “Breakin’ Out”, to name a few –- are about “uplifting women and empowering women in response to so much out there that tries to keep us down,” she said. Brooks is, for obvious reasons, going to take a slightly different approach to the subject matter.

Regardless of the particular purpose of a blues song, there’s a cohesion of the blues in its spiritually pugnacious approach to life – in its stubbornness of belief that triumph is always possible, even through the hardship of personal failure and social misery. Copeland said that her wish is to “fix a small part of this broken world.”

That’s a lesson that is relevant and applicable to everyone. It seems especially important these days for a group of college students like mine, that are preparing to graduate into a depressed job market and live their lives, more likely than not, in a country that’s in decline.