“Spider Tales”: The Sound Of A Gay Black Man Reclaiming Rural Roots
By Rachel Cholst, Contributing Editor
You might not listen to string band music now, but once you spin Spider Tales, Jake Blount’s triumphant debut album, you’ll be hooked. Whatever your preconceptions about the genre, Blount handily shatters them.
For one thing, people who delve into traditional music are not stuffy. Speaking to Country Queer in a NASA-style tank top that said “Vogue” and a rainbow-billed bicycle hat, Blount elaborated on his path to string band music, the “Gay Sweep” at last year’s Clifftop Bluegrass Festival competition, and how Trent Reznor influenced Spider Tales.
The first thing to note is that the term “old time” music can be loaded. Instead, Blount likes to describe his music as “I play fiddle and banjo music from black and Native American musicians, mostly in the Southeastern United States, which is not a genre, but a sentence.”
You’ll see that Blount uses the term old-time throughout our conversation, but he cautions that it erases the most fundamental history of country, bluegrass, and roots music.
“It references these kinds of genre divisions that were put in place at the outset of the recording industry in the South, which were partially based on the race of the performers and the race of the target demographics for those records. So what they called ‘hillbilly records’ at the time, we now call that stuff old time. That was by white musicians and for white people. A lot of black people who were playing the music, the folks that I’m now spending so much time studying and basing my career around, they were written out of the story because they weren’t considered marketable.”
Which, in turn, has consequences for the artists who originated the form.
“For me, the term ‘old time,’ and really any synonymous term, is this racist fabrication of what the musical landscape of the South really was. And I don’t view old-time and blues and gospel and bluegrass as being these neatly separable categories. For me, it’s really about different ways of voicing some of the same musical themes and same lyrical themes that you find throughout all of those genres.”
So Blount has his own framing of his music: “genrequeer.”
Drawing Strength From the Past
Blount does not make these statements lightly: he’s dedicated his life to continuing the legacy of his ancestors.
Though he grew up playing electric guitar (primarily rock’n’roll and funk), the death of Trayvon Martin steered him to explore older musical paths deeply.
“I was just past my senior year of high school when, um, the grand jury made the choice not to indict George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. And I was at my grandparents’ house in DC and went upstairs with this book of slave songs and spirituals, just to kind of acquaint myself with the way that my ancestors had seen the world and what coping mechanisms they had developed so that they could handle the level of hatred and degradation that they were encountering. Obviously, I wasn’t encountering anything comparable, but it was enough to be upsetting to someone who grew up like me in the nineties where we were supposed to be done with this.”
That initial foray inspired Blount to pursue traditional secular music.
“I’m a queer person with a complicated relationship to Christianity. And because I personally just don’t gravitate that much toward the idea of relying on death as a way to make things better, in the way that spirituals do, I went looking for other stuff. I found out that the banjo and the fiddle were the centerpieces of the secular music that folks were making during slavery and thereafter in the rural South.”
Blount felt a strong personal connection to the music, as well, given that many of these songs originated with his direct ancestors in the Chesapeake Bay region. Advised by queer country scholar Lydia Hammesley in college, Blount “dove in” and hasn’t stopped swimming.
The Subtle Rage and Grief of Spider Tales
Blount’s new album, Spider Tales, profiles the collective rage, grief, and defiance of his ancestors. The title is a nod to the Akan folk hero Anansi, who outsmarted his foes with tricks and subtlety. To create the album, Blount worked with his longtime creative partner Tatiana Hargreaves and a hand-picked band of musicians — all of whom, Blount realized once the album was in the can, were queer.
Blount was intentional about the songs he chose for the album. It was a process of narrowing down the songs he learned with Hargreaves while they opened for Rhiannon Giddens. Blount and his friend Cameron DeWhitt created a full-band arrangement for “The Angels Done Bowed Down,” which he’d sung a capella with Hargreaves on the road. Blount also learned “Mad Mamma’s Blues” for the album, believing that that it crystallized his experiences since his first recording, his EP Reparations.
Spider Tales has a heavy, foreboding weight, but that’s intentional. Blount wants to use Spider Tales to “question this narrative that I feel like people have been sold of string band music — especially black string band music — as being cheerful.”
These assumptions came to bear when Blount first began to play out. “I would go play a show, speak my own opinion, very directly, to systemic injustices being perpetrated against black people in this country, speak in a very passionate and direct way about it. People come up afterward and said things to me about how nice it was to have this happy music.” Bluegrass and old-time music tends to have a predominantly older and white audience. “People didn’t always seem to grasp what I was saying because the preconceived notion that they’d entered the concert with was too strong, right? They were so focused on what they expected me to be doing with the music, they didn’t listen to what I was saying.”
More specifically, at Blount’s first professional show with Hargreaves, which he fondly recalls with memories of barrels full of jambalaya and a rollicking Cajun band, the duet contended with a stark microaggression.
“This older white woman with a blue streak in her hair and all that stuff came up to me and was just like, ‘it’s so good to see a young black person learning from the older generations because today’s black people are just too angry.”
So Blount decided to make his point absolutely clear. After the show, the pair learned “The Angels Done Bowed Down” to show that Blount was not going to be shoehorned as “one of the good ones.”
“This album came out of a desire to tease out the sort of anger and demands for justice and resentment that I see simmering in the black traditional music canon throughout history. There is a really long history there of expressing anger and expressing vengefulness and fury in ways that were somewhat covert because if you stated those things outright, you would have been killed for it. And finding things like ‘The Angels Done Bowed Down,’ which is, who knows how old and this spiritual about, you know, begging God to cleanse the earth of injustice, and “Mad Mama’s Blues,” where we don’t necessarily get a cause, but it’s this black woman in the 1920s talking about how she wants to burn the world down and have blood running in the streets. You think about the many things that a black woman in 1920 would have had to make her feel that way.”
Current events practically lent a hand to prove Blount’s point. “I really couldn’t have timed it better. The album came out minutes after the police precinct burned in Minneapolis. So I think it was a timely example of the fact that this has been a long time coming. What we’re seeing now is the result of centuries of this common feeling and it shows up in the music.”
Spider Tales features a complex and varied palette of musical influences. Blount cites the Ithaca-based band The Horseflies as an intriguing influence — especially the way they incorporate new wave influences into their music. (Members Judy Hyman and Jeff Claus produced Spider Tales.) Blount fondly recalls mimicking Hyman’s performances when he began to play out.
There are a few unexpected shades in there, too. “I was on a huge mid-two thousands Nine Inch Nails kick when we recorded this album. The tempo choices in the groove on a lot of the tracks came out of the way that I chose to vary my parts going through. It was definitely informed by how Trent Reznor builds on his themes and arranges the parts to create something that has a really consistent pattern to it, but also is ever changing and really, really gripping. So that’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate, but I’m very certain no one would pick up on that!”
Building Community Within the String Band Scene
Though educating the audience can be draining, Blount and others have built strong communities within the bluegrass and string band scene. Blount told me about a semi-private event in West Virginia called the Afro-Lacchian On-Time Music Gathering. Last summer, Rhiannon Giddens made a surprise appearance on her way home from the Americana Music Awards. She told Blount she was shocked to find that, for the first time, there were musicians present whom she did not know personally.
There is similar community among queer string band and bluegrass enthusiasts. While Blount queers his performances by changing the pronouns in his songs, he also feels that blending genres in the way he does helps to bring a queer eye to traditions. “Flying in the face of the idea of tradition or conventions in the genre, including the banjo, using the Ithaca sound in a really strong and shameless way of giving voice to my own interpretations. There’s a lot of pressure in the old time scene to squash individual voices and to just pedantically imitate what other people have done — which does have value! I really respect and appreciate those folks who spend all their time figuring out every individual bow stroke and note that someone on an old recording played, but that’s not what I’m here to do.”
And, of course, other than the two Horseflies who appeared on the album, Blount’s entire band was queer. “The whole backing band is queer and gender-balanced despite there being five of us. I was just dreaming up like my eighth team of awesome musicians I wanted to record with. It’s great that we’ve come far enough that I could do that unintentionally.”
Blount is careful to note that bluegrass and old time music have a vibrant scene of non-professional musicians as well.
“The majority of the black, old time musicians that I know, including hobbyists, are queer. It’s really cool to me to witness how that plays out. There’s a really diverse and awesome and inclusive scene. We are seeing this in the music. And I found that to be incredible.”
While he’s met with some opposition by white musicians and folklorists due to his progressive interpretations of tradition, Blount feels validated. The Clifftop Bluegrass Festival is one of the pre-eminent festivals, in which contest-winners secure endorsements and workshops at other festivals throughout the season. Last year, all the winners — including Blount — were queer, many of them are people of color.
“When the gay sweep happened at Clifftop last year, people were celebrating. There’s a real sense of momentum and people are really excited for us. It’s a really cool thing.”
Jake will be playing Porch Pride on Saturday, July 27th. The festival will also take place on Sunday the 28th. All proceeds will be split with musicians and Bluegrass Pride, an organization that advocates for queer bluegrass and old time musicians. Watch Country Queer for more details.