Jake Blount: Spider Tales

Spider Tales is the new album by Jake Blount, an American singer, fiddler and banjo player based in Providence, Rhode Island. It contains an equal number of songs and instrumentals, and one of the guests on many tracks is fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves who is at the forefront of bright young musicians in Appalachian music.

The title of the album refers to the trickster spider ‘Anansi’ found in the Akan people’s folklore of West Africa. The stories from this mythology celebrate unseating the oppressor and on several of these tracks Blount draws on 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.”

Accordingly, the recordings here focus on tunes and songs found by Blount during his research into the black and indigenous roots of Appalachian music. There are stark raw songs, modal keys, and confounding melodic structures. It’s all played on fiddle and banjo with the occasional addition of other instruments. Some of the pieces, such as ‘English Chicken’ have unusual melodies and a deliberately discordant tone.

Jake Blount

‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ may be thought of as an Irish song (recorded by The Dubliners and numerous others). But the instrumental version here is different, much older, and was learned from recordings by brothers Osey and Ernest Helton who were a 1920s Cherokee banjo-fiddle duo. It’s played with such a joyous rhythm and swing that it makes you wonder nevertheless if Donal Lunny didn’t have a hand in it somewhere.

The most familiar track is surely the old Leadbelly song ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Others have more obscure origins and the final song ‘Mad Mama’s Blues’, originally by South Carolina-born blues singer Josie Miles, has an arrangement that wouldn’t feel out of place on Dylan’s Love and Theft or one of his later albums.

Blount relates easily to songs that are focused on retribution and loss, from his own experience as a queer activist starting in high school. On Spider Tales, he has gathered a small band of mostly queer artists, including himself, to showcase these fourteen tracks. It’s by no means a dry research project but is instead an album of music to be listened to, engaged with, danced to, rather in the manner of those similar interpreters of old-time music, Carolina Chocolate Drops. It also demonstrates along the way how ideas of Appalachian roots music are changing as many of its hidden or forgotten origins are rediscovered by new generations.

Spider Tales will be released by Free Dirt Records on 29th May.



Explore posts in the same categories: Roots Music from Out There

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