One of the reasons that the Harry Smith anthology of American Folk Music was such a sensation when it was released in 1952 was that it demonstrated that, to a nation watching “I Love Lucy” and listening to Jack Benny, there were more voices out there than they perhaps realised. That, in essence, it was a bigger America after the Anthology than it was before. Dave Van Ronk wrote that it provided him and others with “an overview of the range of styles being played in rural America … It is how most of us first heard Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and even Blind Lemon Jefferson.” All black voices, all unquestionably essential to the music that Ronk knew, and then some. Many have said much the same thing, including Jerry Garcia, John Cohen, and countless others. John Fahey wrote that it demonstrated that white and black artists “listened to and drew from each other’s musics in a landscape of musical interchange.”
Time has moved on, though some aspects of the culture can still appear largely homogeneous. Jake Blount, an old-time musician, is changing that. In 2016, he became the first person of colour to advance to the finals at Clifftop, the first to win in the traditional band category. Having studied with some of the greats in the old-time world, including Bruce Molsky and Rhiannon Giddens, he uses his recordings to shine a light on the experiences of indigenous cultures and people of colour within the old time tradition.
This latest release, “Spider Tales,” is a case in point. What’s sad to say is that so many of the tunes are familiar—these aren’t voices that you need to dig to find. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” also known as “In the Pines,” is here. “Boll Weevil,” a tune largely attributed to Tommy Jarrell, including by Jarrell himself, was learned from a black fiddler backstage at a fiddle convention. “Like many other musicians of his generation,” Blount writes in the liner notes, Jarrell “did not see fit to credit his black sources by name: as such, her identity remains a mystery.” But you know the tune. Blount also looks to indigenous players, like Osey and Ernest Helton, two Cherokee players who learned fiddle from a freed slave who worked at the same distillery as their father in Asheville, North Carolina.
Blount’s technique brings the mournful sounds of old time to the fore, with the stories behind the tunes adding an extra layer. His playing is precise, and human. This album, in so many ways, couldn’t have come at a better time. For many, given the rightful attention that it’s gotten, it will grant a bigger a sense of what the music is—further highlighting that landscape of musical interchange—as well as the country that it has been created within. Smith later said that “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw American changed through music.” That’s Jake Blount’s dream, too.
For Penguin Eggs, Summer/Autumn Double Issue 2020