Banjoist and fiddler Jake Blount has made reclaiming the Black and Indigenous roots of folk and old-time music a thesis of his musical career. His second album Spider Tales, which was named both an “instant classic” and Album of the Month by The Guardian, draws its title from the folk character Anansi and celebrates these histories from a distinctly queer perspective.
Now, Blount draws inspiration from the music of blues queens — who laid the groundwork for modern country music — with his new video “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark.” Out today exclusively with Country Queer, Blount took some time to chat with us about the new music video, restoring Black musical histories, and the pervasive issues of racism and colorism in queer and Black communities.
Let’s start with the basics: how did you find this song and what made you decide to cover it?
I first heard a recording of Alberta Hunter singing this song in college. My professor, Dr. Michael Woods (better known as Doc), pulled it up in a class on African-American music — I can’t recall the exact title. He introduced it as an example of the way prominent Black musicians have threatened racist systems through sex appeal. It stuck in my memory, but I had no thought of playing it at the time. Five years later I found myself wanting to dig more into the blues queen repertoire, since my band was already playing a Josie Miles song called “Mad Mama’s Blues.” I looked this one up again, and decided it was a perfect candidate.
Aside from the glaringly obvious — we’ll get to that — what did you change from the original, and why?
The main thing is the instrumentation, and the arrangement of the solos; in terms of changes, structure and lyrics, it’s all the same.
You made some distinct choices in the video’s costume and setting. What drove those?
I can’t claim credit for the setting – -that was all Jeff and Sue at Beehive Productions. The costume is my standard stage getup these days. What stands out to most people are the harness suspenders. I got some nice shoes for stage wear last summer, and they had brown leather toe caps and heels. I owned nothing else that used brown leather, so I wound up buying a new, brown watchband — and these suspenders, which were made by VLeatherGear.
So the first thing we find out is that it’s dawning on the singer just why it is that they’re less popular in the daytime: it’s because they’re “brown as a berry.” But “you can’t tell the difference after dark.” This is a jaunty song filled with brilliant comic lines, but that would seem to belie a deeply painful realization that underlies the lyric. Any thoughts on that?
Well, I frequently introduce this song as “dedicated to white twinks,” and this is why! It’s a sad reality that Black people are often overlooked in sexual and romantic contexts; Western beauty ideals tend not to welcome many of our features (except when white people imitate them). The queer community is no exception, unfortunately — I think most of us have seen a Grindr profile or two that says “no Blacks or Asians.”
That being said: my immediate reaction was to assume the song was about colorism within the Black community. The idea that light skin is more attractive is pervasive in communities of color as well as among white people. Dark-skinned Black women are often mistreated and made to feel ugly by their families and other members of the community – including potential love interests. There are loads of folk and blues songs from Black men with lyrics reflecting that – take this line from Sid Hemphill’s “John Henry”: “I don’t like no/red-black woman/like myself!”
When you sing, “Why must the boys act so shy?,” it sets up the song as a queer take. But the big punch comes from that first bridge, which takes it into the realm of queer longing. It’s not clear whether this longing is destined to remain unrequited because the object is straight, but the song suggests the possibility that the other party has, on the DL, enjoyed the singer’s favors “after dark”. The darkness hides two very salient traits of the singer: race and gender.
I love that this song leaves ambiguity there; is the subject of the song rejecting the singer due to their race, or are they simply unwilling to own up to their attraction in the daylight? That’s a dynamic familiar to queer folks of all races.