By Pat Moran
With Jake Blount’s Spider Tales, shockwaves of brutality and subjugation echo like a field holler across the centuries, ranging from enslaved people working 19th-century plantations to the protests rocking America’s cities today.
For his debut album, queer African American fiddler and banjoist Blount has unearthed a trove of primarily African American blues, shuffles, and fiddle tunes that provide an alternate history of folk music. Accompanied by fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves and Appalachian flatfooting dancer Nic Gareiss, Blount imbues his selections with a raw elemental power. Old time tunings for both banjo and fiddle also bestow an air of unfamiliarity and contemporary urgency.
The collection, which draws its title from Anansi, the trickster spider who outwits powerful oppressors in the West African Akan people’s folklore, boldly states its thesis with “Move, Daniel.” As sweeping fiddle and tintinnabulations of rattling banjo cradle Blount’s fine-grained tenor, the Gullah Geechee slave song soars like a spiritual. But like Anansi’s web, it’s a clever deceit. The lyrics covertly guide one of the field workers to a smoke house to steal the master’s food.
“The Angels Done Bowed Down,” is both grief-stricken and indomitable. As Hargreaves’ and co-producer Judy Hyman’s fiddles tangle in a knotted skein, Blount’s gritty vocals compare Jesus on the cross to a lynching, and vow retribution with the couplet, “Go down angels to the flood/Blow out the sun/Turn the moon into blood.”
Hardships take on heroic status with “Boll Weevil,” a tune popularized by the godfather of old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell, who never bothered to credit the African-American woman who composed it. Spare whiplash fiddle coils as Blount sings as a farmer faced with ruin: “I don’t see no water, but I’m about to drown/I don’t see no fire but I’m burnin’ down.”
Blount’s collection is not all hardscrabble naturalism and righteous fury. With “Bad Mama’s Blues,” Blount and collaborators seem to be wrapping up the album on a lighter note, but like tricky Anansi, the sassy 1920s vaudevillian tune hides a sharp sting amid its buoyant swing. The jaunty blues with swaying fiddles cannot obscure apocalyptic lyrics about a city ripped apart by explosions while the streets run red with blood.
It is a reminder that America’s history of violence against black bodies cannot be suppressed. And while injustice can only be overcome by the humanity that links us all, the stakes have never been higher.