Jake Blount is an award-winning banjoist, fiddler, singer and ethnomusicologist based in Providence, Rhode Island. A solo artist and half of the duo Tui, he was a 2020 Strathmore Artist in Residence here in the DC area until the coronavirus hit. Blount serves as a board member of Bluegrass Pride and he is a 2020 recipient of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, which is where I first came across his work.
Oh, and he happened to spend years playing metal and funk guitar. Yes, people do take very different routes to get to a love of old-time music. There’s more on his path below.
Blount specializes in the music of Black communities in the southeastern United States, and in the regional style of the Finger Lakes. A versatile performer, Blount interpolates blues, bluegrass and spirituals into the old-time string band tradition he belongs to. He foregrounds the experiences of queer people and people of color in his work. His teachers include Rhiannon Giddens, Bruce Molsky and Judy Hyman.
I’ve written of how Black folk music was often repurposed and repackaged for whites while the original artists had their voices erased. Blount goes back to the originals, whether in his solo work or with Libby Weitnauer in the duo Tui. Bobbie Jean Sawyer, writing in Wide Open Country, notes that Blount traces the Black and Indigenous roots of Appalachian music and showcases how old-time music spoke truth to power.
“One of the most persistent myths surrounding country music is that the genre is “white people music.” The erasure of the Black artists who shaped country music and the industry’s continual exclusion of people of color stands in contrast to genre’s longstanding mantra: “three chords and the truth.” And the truth is, country music would not exist without Black artists.
In 2020, Blount’s first full-length solo album, Spider Tales, was released on Free Dirt Records & Service Co. The album debuted at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart. Rolling Stone wrote of one of the songs on the album:
A queer and black performer working in Appalachian music, Blount gives an eerie, gender-flipped rendition of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — famously covered by Nirvana — that’s heavy on mournful fiddle and every bit as unsettling as the original.
Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone opens Spider Tales. “The tune comes from Lucius Smith, a Black banjo player from Sardis, Mississippi, who often performed in a band with Sid Hemphill.” The video notes also tell us that Alan Lomax recorded Smith first in 1942, then in 1978. In this video, Blount is playing the banjo while Nic Gareiss performs with his feet.
Roustabout features Blount and Tatiana Hargreaves, another frequent musical partner. According to the notes on the video, this tune is from Dink Roberts, who lived in Haw River, North Carolina, and was an accomplished guitarist as well as banjoist.
In the Wide Open Country interview, Blount describes when he became immersed in Black old-time music.
“I sort of had this gradual, gravitational pull toward more traditional stuff and finding my way to it that really came to a head when the grand jury made the choice not to indict George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin,” Blount says. “I felt the need to go back to the songs my ancestors had sung, initially in the form of spirituals, and then eventually in the form of banjo and fiddle music to sort of understand how they had seen the world because songs are the only direct record they left us. So many of them couldn’t read or write and could not read or write the truth — even if they were able to put it to paper — for fear of persecution. I went looking for something that I needed to adapt to the world in front of me and wound up involved in this awesome jam scene and getting really into source recordings and learning old music. It just took on a life of its own.”
As people around the world protest racial injustice and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, Blount says traditional old-time and folk songs, many of which are featured on Spider Tales, provide a soundtrack to the current Black Lives Matter movement.
We’ll end with Boll Weevil, which features Blount’s fiddling and vocals and was recorded live at the 2019 International Bluegrass Music Association World of Bluegrass gathering in Raleigh.
More to come…
Image by Michelle Lotker via JakeBlount.com