For as long as it’s existed, the American music industry has obsessed over Black music, co-opting it into a package to be marketed and resold. Many Black perspectives deemed too threatening were defanged or erased in the process—particularly in genres like country, bluegrass, and folk, which draw on African-American sources but are usually performed by and for white people. Banjo player and fiddler Jake Blount resurrects those perspectives on his new album, Spider Tales, out May 29, 2020 on Free Dirt Records. He’s digging deep into the roots of the music, pushing all the way back to Africa; the album’s title, Spider Tales, is a nod to the great trickster of Akan mythology, Anansi. “The Anansi stories were tales that celebrated unseating the oppressor,” Blount says, “and finding ways to undermine those in power even if you’re not in a position to initiate a direct conflict.”
Blount is also drawing out the coded pain and anger in the songs to give voice to those who were shunned from America's musical canon. “There’s a long history of expressions of pain in the African-American tradition,” Blount says. “Often those things couldn’t be stated outright. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person back then you could die from it, but the anger and the desire for justice are still there. They’re just hidden. The songs deal with intense emotion but couch it in a love song or in religious imagery so that it wasn’t something you could be called out about. These ideas survived because people in power weren’t perceiving the messages, but they’re there if you know where to look.” Blount is determined to show that this music didn't form in a vacuum, but in the face of ruinous hardship.
The music of Spider Tales is haunted, full of “crooked” instrumental tunes, modal keys, stark songs, and confounding melodic structures. Jake Blount spins effortlessly through this music, playing his instruments with a focus on subtlety and on relaying meaning even in the melodies that have no words. Blount handpicked the tunes and songs from his own extensive research drawing out the Black and Indigenous roots of Appalachian music. Some songs, like “The Angels Done Bowed Down,” are downright apocalyptic, speaking of blood moons and sacrifice, while “Mad Mama’s Blues” is so ferociously violent that it’s surprising it was even recorded in the 1920s. Even the instrumental tunes have a raw, abstract power to them. “‘Old-Timey Grey Eagle’ for me is the track that screams,” Blount says. “There’s an intensity in the build of the first two parts, followed by the destruction of the structure of the song, the destruction of the meter. Just a protracted vocalization coming out of the fiddle that I was emulating on the banjo. That spoke volumes about the intensity of the feeling behind the piece.”
The songs of Spider Tales are focused on retribution and pursued by loss. It’s this sense of doom that dovetails with Blount’s own experience as a queer activist starting in high school. “I realized later that many of the songs on the album are about losing people,” he says, “about saying goodbye. The side effect from working with LGBT youth is that a lot of us don’t make it to adulthood or go through terrible things along the way. Going through late high school and college right when I started to make the transition into folk and old-time music, every few months someone would just die. People would just drop off the map. I’d realize I hadn’t heard about someone for a while, so I’d reach out to a mutual friend and then find they’re homeless.” When he interprets Leadbelly’s classic song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, to Blount these lyrics speak of friends rendered homeless, a starkly different interpretation than the usual jaded love song most singers interpret. Blount realized that this same sense of loss pervades the African-American songs and history on the album. “Connecting with my family history and my father’s childhood history, he’d talk about people disappearing. Those lynchings didn’t all happen in broad daylight; my dad talked about people in his community ‘disappearing’ and you’d kind of assume what had happened. For me there was a very direct connection between what I’d gone through in the queer community and this narrative of disappearance and loss that surrounded the Black community in the South throughout much of our nation’s history, and still arguably does.”
On Spider Tales, Jake Blount has assembled a band of mostly queer artists, including himself, to showcase these fourteen tracks. This reflects a recent sea change in Appalachian music that’s seen queer artists and artists of color rise to greater visibility than anyone thought possible. Blount himself has twice won the famed Appalachian String Band Festival competition in Clifftop, WV—the first time a Black artist had won in his categories—and in 2019 queer artists and artists of color swept the top spots at the awards. It’s a sign of hope for Appalachian mountain music—a sign that voices once lost to these traditions are finally being heard.
For more information on Jake Blount, please visit his official site.
Jake Blount Recordings from Free Dirt Records: