American bluesman Greg Copeland promises a heart-felt, raw event when he brings his stripped-down acoustic set to the Tauranga Arts Festival later this month.
“This is how the blues are meant to be heard,” he says. “The music came to America with African slaves, some of them my ancestors, and brought a lot of comfort in the circumstances they found themselves in.”
Although the music is comprised of hurt and pain, Greg notes that it was also a “secret” way of communication between slaves.
“The slave masters kept the workers separated as much as possible but they were always within hearing distance so when a slave sang ‘someone gonna be free, someone gonna be free’, they knew, before the plantation owner, there was an escape planned.
“They might have had their freedom taken but they still had their music. I’m very thankful they were able to pass down their songs and re-create the instruments they played.”
Brought up by his mother Delores, who sang gospel, Greg learned about the blues at the knee of his uncle Bill.
“Gospel was all around me – I still like the groove of it – and I was born in an era when the older people said the blues were the devil’s music. So, naturally, I couldn’t wait to listen to it and my Uncle Bill secretly taught me.
“When I was about 9, Uncle Bill told me the blues was the sound of a black man’s soul crying – even when the slaves were freed the music didn’t stop because the pain and suffering didn’t stop. It’s our form of therapy.”
Playing an acoustic set is important to Greg, supported in New Zealand by Nelson-based German guitarist Steve Gillies, especially as young African-American musicians have largely turned away from the genre “because there’s no money in it”.
“Jazz, rock, bebop, funk, soul, they all came from the blues. It’s a form of cultural suicide if we let the acoustic blues go.”
Greg moved to Germany in 1977, initially on a 2-year tour with the United States airforce. After meeting and marrying a local woman he still intended to return to the US “but then the children started to arrive … and I’m still there”.
Working as a truck driver for almost 30 years, Greg kept performing when he had the chance. “I didn’t want to miss the children growing up but when the last one left I said to my wife ‘now is the time’ and made music my main focus.”
A new album, ‘Brown-eyed Handsome Man’, was released in March and includes a duet with another Germany-based American bluesman Big Daddy Wilson, who also produced the album.
The album’s title comes from a story of what happened when Greg was born, on the hottest day of 1954. “I was born with my eyes wide open and they were brown. An old woman stood up and shouted, ‘He gon´be a brown-eyed handsome man’.“
With four adult daughters, Greg reckons his biggest achievement has been as a father. “When they say you’re the greatest dad in the world my chest puffs up and I feel 10-feet tall,” he laughs.
But the joy his family has brought him masks the sadness of his own upbringing.
“Not having had a father in my life affects to me this day,” he says. “It has caused me to write some intense blues songs, it’s like my heart cannot be complete. But let me say that I have so much respect for my mum because she carried out both roles and I was never less than loved.”
- written by Sandra Simpson