Jake Blount recalls a day in 2011 when he happened upon a restaurant venue during a city-based music festival in Washington DC and learned more than one thing that would change his life. “I ran into this band,” he says - Megan Jean and Byrne Klay of Charleston, SC. “It was a woman playing a washboard and a guy playing a banjo. And they had a totally different sound than anything I’d heard, largely because he was playing clawhammer style, and I’d never seen that done before.” Mark this as epiphany number one.
“I helped them carry their gear out and we chatted for a while. They told me what their life was like. They were touring in a Honda Element,” Blount says. It was the first time he’d learned about the possibilities of making a living as an independent musician. Epiphany number two. “And Byrne told me about the history of the banjo and that it had come over from Africa with enslaved Africans. I had no idea. I think most people don’t have any idea. We’re working hard to change that.” Epiphany number three.
Next came college, banjo lessons and a degree in ethnomusicology. And “I found my way into this part of Americana and folk that felt more inclusive to me and eventually started gravitating toward older and older sounds that pulled me in a long spiral toward old-time music.”
That’s the simplified origin story of one of the most compelling and signifying figures in roots music. Blount (say ‘blunt’) is 25 years old, African American, queer and a social activist from even before he had his old-time awakening. He’s a banjo player and fiddler in the vanguard of a new wave of Black artistry in the historically white spaces defined by bluegrass, old-time and Americana. He is proudly progeny of the movement sparked by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the North Carolina ensemble that emerged just before 2010 with a revival sound and an urgent, timely story.
“I say they single handedly snatched black string band tradition from the jaws of extinction,” Blount says “For them to learn the style as well as they did, and they took it worldwide and took old time and black old-time to bigger stages than it had ever seen. That’s a huge deal. I don’t know a single black person who came to the music in my generation who doesn’t see them has having brought them in.”
Blount has become a prolific artist and educator in a short span of time. He released the EP Reparations in 2017 as a collaboration with fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves. In 2019 he won the prestigious Clifftop Appalachian banjo contest and opened a series of shows for Chocolate Drops founder Rhiannon Giddens, while also putting out an album with fiddler Libby Weitnauer as the duo Tui. Meanwhile, he’s lectured at universities and music programs about traditional music and race. But when folks look back on Blount’s career and mission, it will be hard to identify a more important landmark than his 2020 album Spider Tales.
The title references a folkloric figure from West Africa that made its way into the culture of enslaved people in America. Stories about Anansi the Spider were used to subvert and oppose oppression in the old world and the new. Each song is its own tale, drawn from a primary or period source, chosen for telling some aspect of the story of Black music in America, in all its early diversity and influence. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” comes from the relatively familiar oeuvre of Huddy “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. Less known might be “Blackbird Says To The Crow” from Fentress County, TN fiddler Cuje Bertram, who was denied the chance to make records in his prime because of his race. “Mad Mama’s Blues” is a ferocious and violent number drawn from little known blues queen Josie Miles. There are other songs drawn from Native Americans and the Gullah-Geechee people of the southeastern sea islands.
It’s a masterwork of relevant, living musicology that dances in the modern ear, sometimes literally. Besides the return of collaborator Tatiana Hargreaves on fiddle, plus Haselden Ciaccio on bass and Rachel Eddy on guitar, we hear subtle, syncopated foot percussion from the innovative dancer Nic Gareiss, as on the opener “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone,” shown below.
“There’s a broad exploration there of not just the black string band tradition but of the full landscape of what black people were working with at the time,” Blount says. “I can’t represent all those traditions as well as somebody who’s dedicated a ton of their time into all of them. That’s why they all took on a string band flavor in the end. I had to do what I know how to do. But I think what I really wanted to show was there are close relationships between these styles and we have to be mindful that what we’ve been taught (about categories) – blues is here, country is here, gospel is here. All of those things were feeding into each other and learning from one another and growing together up until the founding of the commercial record industry.”
In our two-part conversation presented here, Blount talks about drawing close to traditional music, the influence of Rhiannon Giddens on his trajectory, his impressions of anti-racism efforts within the International Bluegrass Music Association, constructive ways to think about (and compensate for) cultural appropriation and how to recognize protest music in unexpected places in the historic year 2020.