For as long as it’s existed, the American music industry has obsessed over Black music, co-opting it into a package to be marketed and resold. Many Black perspectives deemed too threatening were defanged or erased in the process—particularly in genres like country, bluegrass, and folk, which draw on African-American sources but are usually performed by and for white people. Banjo player and fiddler Jake Blount resurrects those perspectives on his new album, Spider Tales, out May 29, on Free Dirt Records. He’s digging deep into the roots of the music, pushing all the way back to Africa; the album’s title, Spider Tales, is a nod to the great trickster of Akan mythology, Anansi. Blount is also drawing out the coded pain and anger in the songs to give voice to those who were shunned from America’s musical canon. Blount is determined to show that this music didn’t form in a vacuum, but in the face of ruinous hardship.
The songs of Spider Tales are focused on retribution and pursued by loss. It’s this sense of doom that dovetails with Blount’s own experience as a queer activist starting in high school. On Spider Tales, Jake Blount has assembled a band of mostly queer artists, including himself, to showcase these fourteen tracks. This reflects a recent sea change in Appalachian music that’s seen queer artists and artists of color rise to greater visibility than anyone thought possible. Blount himself has twice won the famed Appalachian String Band Festival competition in Clifftop, WV—the first time a Black artist had won in his categories—and in 2019 queer artists and artists of color swept the top spots at the awards. It’s a sign of hope for Appalachian mountain music—a sign that voices once lost to these traditions are finally being heard.
Today Glide is excited to offer an exclusive premiere of the track “Brown Skin Baby.” In a way, Blount came upon the song almost by chance. “I learned this tune from recordings of a Mississippi fiddler named Jabe Dillon, who learned it in turn from a Black fiddler that he identified only as ‘Old Denis’,” he says. He describes the song as “loosely structured and improvisatory, full of the deep rhythms, microtones and nonsense lyrics that old-time music is known for.” What’s fascinating about Blount’s rendition is the way he manages to simultaneously reinvent the song to match his own unique approach while still staying faithful to the deep history and sounds behind it. “Dillon plays the tune differently on each of the three recordings I have (gifts from Harry Bolick, renowned fiddler and scholar of Mississippi music). To create my version, I picked the recording I liked best and plucked certain licks and variations from the other ones,” he says. Blount’s fiddle playing takes the spotlight in this song, sounding raw and vivid as if played on the spot around a campfire in some far off time. His respect for musical history alongside his invigorating style makes him one of the more exciting voices in old timey music today, and “Brown Skin Baby” encapsulates his strongest traits as an artist.
Jake Blount’s Spider Tales is out May 29th via Free Dirt Records. PRE-ORDER