Graded on a Curve:
Jake Blount,
Spider Tales

While country, bluegrass, and folk musics are often considered the domain of white performers, those styles have been undeniably impacted by Black artists. This is the dominant theme of banjo player and fiddler Jake Blount’s new record Spider Tales, which is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the Free Dirt label. Blount is also an LGBTQ activist, and for this album he’s assembled a band of mostly queer artists, including himself, so that the contents are at once a document of historical reclamation, a rallying cry of inclusion, and a celebration of difference. And as Blount has twice won the Appalachian String Band Festival competition in Clifftop, WV, he delivers the instrumental goods.

Spider Tales opens with Jake Blount on banjo in duo with dancer and musician Nic Gareiss, whose footwork provides “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone” with expressive rhythmic counterpoint to the hearty strumming and plucking. Derived from a song by the Black fiddler of Mississippi Lucius Smith, it’s played by Blount in a distinctive tuning (both on the album and in general) that suggests the fife and drum music of Otha Turner and Sid Hemphill (with whom Smith played).

A whole album of this stuff would’ve been sweet as a crème brulee, but Blount’s ambitions here are much larger, moving immediately thereafter to Appalachian North Carolina with “Roustabout,” featuring Blount on banjo again in a recurring duo with the sharp and fleet fiddling of Tatiana Hargreaves on a song from guitarist and banjoist Dink Roberts.

Blount also sings on “Roustabout,” and does so well, though the track is largely a showcase for the deft instrumental weave of strings thrummed and bowed. His singing is much more prominent on the following cut “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which expands the setting to a four-piece with the addition of Rachel Eddy on guitar and Haselden Ciaccio on bass.

It’s a fine performance both by Blount as vocalist (with Hargreaves backing him on the chorus) and collectively as a band, and it further stands out for the shift in focus from underheard figures, which is a fair description of Smith’s and Roberts’ old-time stature, to a new interpretation of a song, both by Leadbelly and in subsequent versions, that’s become downright iconic in recent decades.

Blount and group don’t alter it in its musical arrangement but just drop it into Spider Tales’ larger thematic context not as a “jaded love song” (which is how Free Dirt’s notes categorize its numerous interpretations) but instead as an expression of struggle from the viewpoint of those who’ve been victimized by racism and intolerance both historically and as recently as yesterday.

This shift in perspective shines a fresh light of reconsideration upon the songs Blount has chosen and by extension to a style of music that’s approach to tradition is often focused on form over content, though as the banjo-fiddle workouts “Old-Timey Grey Eagle” and “Done Gone” later in the album drive home, the instrumental ability on display is amongst the very best around right now; Hargreaves’ duo album with Allison de Groot from last year, also on Free Dirt, is an absolute knockout.

Both “Old-Timey Grey Eagle” and “Done Gone” are sourced from Cherokee Indian fiddler Manco Sneed, who like Dink Roberts was from North Carolina, with both somewhat neglected as recording artists, though they are featured on separate CDs by the Field Recorders’ Collective, an indefatigable label with over 100 releases available on disc at their website and at the ready digitally on Bandcamp.

Those releases reinforce a certain tendency. That is, of non-white mastery in these styles getting captured predominantly by the most persistent of old-time annotators and in turn becoming part of a somewhat formidable gush of material rather than getting placed on anywhere near a deserving spotlight. Spider Tales takes a few steps toward acknowledging these wrongs and championing the sheer perseverance.

“Blackbird Says to the Crow,” performed here by Blount, Hargreaves and Gareiss back with the footwork, is a song by the Fentress County, Tennessee fiddler Cuje Bertram that survives only due to a home recording of a couple dozen songs made late in his life that have since been released by another unrelenting label, Document, on their CD Black Fiddlers 1929 – c.1970.

Bertram was passed over in the early recording industry due to his race (a finer point is that the companies were largely disinterested in Black musicians in what they perceived as white styles), a fate shared by Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson, a Black banjo-fiddle duo from Nashville who were recorded in 1942 not commercially but by noted Fisk University scholar John Work, III.  Their “English Chicken” is given a fine duo workout, with Hargreaves’ high-pitched bowing especially delightful.

Deepening this collection’s worth is that some of the sources were never recoded at all, which is the case with the Black fiddler known as Old Denis, whose song “Brown Skin Baby,” recorded here solo by Blount in one of Spider Tales’ highlights, was documented by the obscure Mississippi fiddler Jabe Dillon, who renamed it “Brown Skin Girl.”

We don’t know even know the name of the Black woman fiddler who taught “Boll Weevil” to Tommy Jarrell backstage at a music festival. Jarrell was one of the greatest old-time fiddlers (his Sail Away Ladies on County Records is a smoker) but sadly, he was not so adept at crediting sources who didn’t share his skin tone. As on “Brown Skin Baby,” Blount plays and sings “Boll Weevil” solo, and its bluesy verve sounds magnificent.

Markedly contrasting is the full-band treatment of “Rocky Road to Dublin,” which adds Spider Tales’ producer Jeff Claus on banjo uke along with Eddy and Ciaccio. While still deep in the string band tradition, there’s a touch of bluegrass in the mix (the string bass is a contributing factor) plus a melodic line that (per the title) reaches back to British roots; the source of the song is the Cherokee banjo-fiddle duo Osey and Ernest Helton from Ashville, NC.

For “The Angels Done Bowed Down,” another song with an unknown source, the quintet is expanded to a six piece as Claus’ wife Judy Hyman joins in on fiddle for a track that as sung by Blount with more backing by Hargreaves, taps into the string-band infused side of contempo Americana but with appealing weight and dark edge. It leads fittingly into “Beyond This Wall,” which is Hyman’s song. Blount played it last year at Clifftop, WV, making it the most recent entry to the Black string band tradition.

“Move, Daniel,” credited to the McIntosh County Shouters who recorded it on their Smithsonian Folkways LP Slave Shout Songs from the coast of Georgia, adds to the variety, as well. Although a version of a song dating from before the Civil War, the playing by the trio of Blount, Hargreaves and Gareiss brings the LP its most modern-leaning groove.

But closer “Mad Mama’s Blues,” originally recorded in 1925 by Josie Miles with the Kansas City Five, ends the record with the deepest dip into near-sophisto string-band flair, reinforcing Blount and his collaborators’ strengths in interpretation as Spider Tales is a rousing thematic success, providing not only a doorway into the history of Black string band music but a taste of the future, as well.


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