Musician Jake Blount moved to Providence in February, giving him just a month to find his bearings before everything began shutting down. Since then, he’s been going for lots of long walks; he’s learning the territory. He just hasn’t really met many people yet.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He’s already friends with the guys in local Americana outfit The Vox Hunters. And he’s passed through before while touring.
“When I play in other places,” Blount tells me over Zoom, “the people that show up all know the music already. In Providence, almost nobody knew the music, but they all came to the show anyway. There’s an openness to trying a new thing here.”
In Blount’s case, that new thing is a very old thing. The Washington, DC native plays banjo and fiddle, and he knows a lot about the history of old-time music, including the fourteen songs that comprise Spider Tales, his debut album. Named for the tricky spider Anansi, the songs draw from a number of ethnic traditions, from the enslaved Gullah-Geechee people (“Move, Daniel”) to the Black women whose tunes were taken, uncredited, by later white musicians (“Boll Weevil”). One called “Rocky Road to Dublin” was written by two Cherokee brothers from North Carolina.
A lot of people don’t know this, but the music we mostly associate with white Appalachia originated with slaves. The banjo originally came from West Africa. It crossed the Atlantic via the slave trade, and its popularity later concentrated in the Chesapeake Bay area, where Blount was raised. When Black people began migrating to cities, they mostly cast the banjo aside in favor of the guitar. In the words of musicologist Karen Linn, “the banjo was never emancipated.” Of course, as the recent passing of Little Richard reminds us, Black originators are too often erased from cultural history.
But Blount also lives in the present, and he’s committed to proving that the Black string band tradition is stilla live. In a five-star review, The Guardian declared Spider Tales “an instant classic.”
Blount’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” swaps the gender of the protagonist, marking maybe the first direct reference to gay marriage in the history of that particular murder ballad. Blount is queer; so are most of the other musicians on the album, notably his close friend Tatiana Hargreaves, who appears on eleven of the album’s fourteen songs.
“I made a list of dream collaborators for the album,” he says, “and then I realized they were all gay.”
“Beyond This Wall” is another mournful song, written by fiddler Judy Hyman and inspired by a photograph of the entrance to a lesser-known World War II concentration camp. According to the liner notes, the song “became part of the Black string band tradition” in 2019 at Black Clifftop, a small offshoot of the Appalachian String Band Music Festival.
Festivals are where musicians meet and exchange ideas, though the old-time folk scene is much more laid back than the festival circuit that mainstream performers tour. At the Appalachian String Band Festival, there’s little differentiation between performer and audience, and the music is a constant flurry of picking and fiddling from various campsites.
“It’s not always comfortable,” Blount says when I ask the inevitable question about what it’s like to be gay and Black at festivals in rural Appalachia. “But there’s no climate of hostility.” he says. The scene is insular enough that most of the people already know one another, anyway. “And everyone’s excited to see Black people showing up again.”
This year there probably won’t be festivals. There won’t be a tour to promote the album, either, but Blount remains upbeat. Since touring was his sole source of income, he now relies on streaming concerts, many of which are assembled at the last minute. There are paid concerts, where a ticket gets you a Zoom link, but he says he does a lot better with free concerts on Facebook and Instagram. A virtual tip jar usually results in three or four times the revenue of a ticketed concert, and his Instagram concerts often have upwards of 200 attendees. “It won’t last forever,” he says, “but right now listeners are working really hard to make sure that musicians are being supported through this.”
Spider Tales is out Friday (5/29) on Free Dirt Records.