Providence, Rhode Island-based songwriter, Jake Blount, is a tailor of musical traditions. The banjo and fiddle player, who cut his teeth playing in funk and metal bands at 12-years-old and has since evolved into a scholar of traditional forms, dives headfirst into sonic histories and lineages each time he picks up an instrument. Blount, who will release his forthcoming LP, Spider Tales, on May 29th, has created a collection of folk songs that reach from Appalachia to Africa, pulling and plucking from some of the genre’s most timeless melodies and heartfelt tales.
From the moment Blount heard the album, Barton Hollow, by the Civil Wars in high school, he decided to drop everything and buy an acoustic guitar. From then on, he was hooked on traditional music. But as he got deeper into understanding the histories behind the traditional songs, Blount realized how closely and poignantly they started to relate to and intertwine with his own life. Growing up black and queer in America, Blount says, there was much in the cannon of folk music that resonated.
“I was at my grandparents’ house in 2013, the summer after I graduated high school,” Blount says. “And the news came back that George Zimmerman was not going to be tried for killing Trayvon Martin. As a young, black person living in America at that time, I saw that a lot of things that we thought were over with our parents’ generation were not.”
When Blount talks about his music and the research that has gone into it, the term “genrequeer” comes up. The idea is meant to describe a style of art that weaves or blends together many other styles within it – it’s fluid. And it’s a mode of creating work that Blount says to which he’s aspired. Over the years, music has been separated into numerous genres – gospel, blues, R&B, rock. But there are through-lines and ways in which all of these genres are similar. Perhaps first and foremost in that they originated in black culture.
“I felt very personally connected to this music as a black person,” Blount says. “I grew up in the mid-Atlantic region but my whole family still lives in a rural town in southeast Virginia. So, to drive around the area with my grandparents and they can say, ‘This is the plantation where we were kept,’ that immediate bond to the history tied me personally to the music.”
But while Blount has found himself a path for education through studying proverbial musical bloodlines in traditional folk, blues, gospel, rock and R&B, that doesn’t mean his journey has always been clear and easy. In fact, due to Blount’s near complete immersion into the music, he has had to remind himself not to lose himself in the work.
“It’s very hard for me to remember that I can speak for myself,” Blount says. “I spend a lot of time with old recordings trying to copy banjo picking patterns or fiddle picking patters. Often times, I can forget that I can make a difference and that I can write something on my own and that I’m not inferior. There’s a balance between respecting the tradition and allowing myself to be creative and not judging myself too harshly.”
Spider Tales is an achievement. The songs are simple in one sense: a banjo, a fiddle and some light percussion. But in another way, each track drips with history and transports to eras and locales that are seemingly otherwise only in folklore or dark fairy tales. The 14-track record includes many instrumental songs (complete with percussive two-stepping) and sections that, Blount says, harken to the standards written for dancing and not for center stage crooners.
Nevertheless, Blount sings on some of the tracks, a nerve for which, he says, he’s trying to strengthen. And Blount has a charming voice, there’s nothing novice about it. On the familiar Lead Belly ballad, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Blount sings lamentingly of absence. It’s a theme – loss of friends and family – that he’s all too used to as a black, queer American and as someone who often finds himself on the front lines of protest and social activism.
Taking up space and putting out music offers Blount a sense of justice. In each song he plays, he’s doing so in part to honor the people and artists that have come before him. And he does so admirably. On “Roustabout,” Blount conjures the sounds of dawn on the farm and it’s fishing time (but, as with many songs he sings, there’s a double meaning). On “Move, Daniel,” Blount rouses, chants. And on the final track, “Mad Mama’s Blues,” he sings jauntily of death with a New Orleans twang. Throughout the album, though, Blount combines disparate styles, mending them in his own way.
“That’s what I’m after,” Blount says. “To connect totally different communities and realize we all have the same fight.”