Little Richard invented rock ‘n’ roll.
So sayeth Stevie Van Zandt, and I ain’t gonna argue with Little Stevie.
What’s that got to do with roots music and the new album from Jake Blount? Not a lot, except this: whether we’re talking rock ‘n’ roll or roots music of the old-time variety, the contributions of African-American innovators and stylists is overlooked or minimized.
Sure, the histories of music usually have a chapter or two devoted to the early Black originators and influencers, but the pages rapidly turn to white musicians who were allowed to take the music to greater levels of popularity and financial reward.
Jake Blount makes it clear within the liner notes of Spider Tales that he is exposing the oft-forgotten and overlooked Black musicians who provided the inspiration, from Africa to America. He does so in the most intently and enjoyable manner.
The majority of the tunes and songs Jake Blount chooses to present within this set have origin within the repertoire of named and unnamed Black musicians. Detailed within the liner notes are names familiar (Tommy Jarrell, credited with “Boll Weevil” from an unnamed Black female fiddler and Huddie Ledbetter) but mostly unfamiliar to the wider (and whiter) folk and old-time community. This relegation—in respect, documentation, and recognition—of Black musicians, songwriters, and song gatherers is the crux of Blount’s thesis.
Blount is no stranger to marginalization. As a Black man and a queer activist, Blount has elected to feature others from the LGBTQ2+ community and people of colour as his collaborators for this project. By its nature, Spider Tales is a political album. As Blount writes in his notes,
“In this new decade, we will face escalating patterns of violence and ecological crisis that threaten the survival of our species. We must remember that we are not the first to fear the loss of our loved ones, the erasure of our legacies, or the destruction of what we have made. Attend the words and works of forbearers who felt the same grief, powerlessness, and fury—and whether by spurning or embracing these emotions, found the strength to survive.”
A call to action.
Blount’s reading of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (with the familiar refrain, “In the pines, in the pines where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through”) is given add heft; his interpretation of the song is homage to the homeless, members of our society who frequently simply disappear. Blount’s fiddling is augmented here (and on additional pieces) by that of Tatiana Hargreaves, creating as lonesome a blues piece as one can imagine.
Other tunes featuring this pairing—but with Blount on banjo—include the driving “Roustabout,” the Celtic-jam flavoured “Rocky Road to Dublin,” the mysterious “Done Gone,” and “Beyond This Wall.” While the majority of the material dates back generations, the evocative “Beyond This Wall” is a more recent composition aligned with the new Black sting band tradition; it comes from Judy Hyman, an Ithaca, NY fiddler, and her spouse Jeff Claus, co-producers of Spider Tales.
Jubilant is “Move Daniel,” featuring Blount’s clawhammer-style playing alongside Hargreaves with Nic Gareiss providing percussive step dancing. An additional highlight is a fiery take on Cuje Bertram’s “Blackbird Says to the Crow,” featuring the same alignment.
As change of pace, a pair of familiar tunes—“Boll Weevil” and “Brown Skin Baby”—feature Blount singing and playing unaccompanied. The full string band treatments of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” “Rocky Road to Dublin,” “Mad Mama Blues,” and “The Angels Done Bowed Down” feature combinations of Blount, Hargreaves, Rachel Eddy (guitar), Haselden Ciaccio (bass), Hyman (fiddle,) and Claus (banjo-uke); it is on these numbers that the music’s vibrancy is most apparent.
Blount has delved deeply into these numbers, arranging each to reveal its essence. From haunting solo and duo pieces, to animated full-band arrangements, Spider Tales is a very welcome addition to the modern old-time, folk tradition. Blessed with a rich, redolent voice, Blount reveals the history of these songs while bringing them to the attention of modern audiences eager for authentic connection. Artfully packaged with critical notes.
Come for the music; stay for the education.