When award-winning folk musician Jake Blount got the urge to leave Washington, D.C, he could’ve moved just about anywhere.
He picked Rhode Island.
“I’d played here a couple times. Often when you play trad/acoustic folk music, you wind up playing for an audience of older white people. What I found unique about Rhode Island, a crowd would always show up who had no idea what was going to happen. There would be some folkie fans, but there were also people who were like: ‘Hey, an interesting thing is happening, I’m gonna go to this weird house show,’” Blount said in a recent phone interview.
“Invariably, people would show up not knowing what was going on, and really get into it. That’s a really rare thing. It spoke to an open-mindedness and general excitedness that I haven’t found in many other places.”
He recorded his new album, “The New Faith,” out Sept. 23, during the pandemic in his Providence home.
It hits you like a fiery mountaintop sermon.
He tells an ominous tale of a future climate change-doomsday — but with beats and grooves that will have you dancing. (Example: “The Man Was Burning.”)
The story is set on the shores of an island in Maine, where Blount imagines a religious ceremony performed by Black refugees after the collapse of global civilization due to climate change.
It’s a parable sewn from traditional tunes — for example, “Once There Was No Sun,” an old standard recorded by Bessie Jones, fits right in.
An Afrofuturist, traditional folk scholar and specialist in the early folk music of Black Americans, Blount is a queer Black fiddler and banjo player, 2020 recipient of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, and two-time winner of the Appalachian String Band Music Festival.
The 27-year-old’s bread and butter are traditional tunes. His debut solo album “Spider Tales” (2020) landed on NPR and The New Yorker’s Best Albums of that year. The gorgeous video for “Once There Was No Sun” landed in Rolling Stone. And as an LGBTQ activist, he was on the founding board of Bluegrass Pride.
We caught up with Blount ahead of shows at Boston’s Passim Oct. 19 and Providence’s Columbus Theatre Oct. 21 to talk about everything from Black roots music, to climate change, to what he loves about Rhode Island.
Q: This concept-album is so unique. How did this story come to you?
I had a 16-hour round-trip drive in the summer of 2020 when things were at their bleakest with the pandemic, and decided for whatever reason, to spend it listening to “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler. [It] showed me a way to imagine the future under climate change.
When (Smithsonian) Folkways asked me to do a record, they asked me to pitch a few ideas. This was the one they liked — it was also the one I was most excited about. It was an ambitious choice, but I’m glad I did it.
What drew you to this theme?
Going through the pandemic, as everyday life fell apart, it became clear how fragile our economy is. I had the sense: Oh, this is a dry-run for what we’re about to have to do [with a climate change disaster.] We’re going to have to do this a second time. I wanted to think about what that might look like. It was intense.
I bet. And how did you pick the songs?
I started with songs that were topical. The first two I picked were “The Downward Road” and “Didn’t It Rain.” I heard “The Man Was Burning,” and thought: That, I can do something very cool with.
When I sent my dad the first roughs, he was like, “Oh, this is fish-fry music.” When he was [growing up in Virginia] they’d have fish-fries, and everyone would start banging on the tables, clapping, clanking bottles, singing songs. So I managed to tie pretty directly into the traditions of the family there.
You grew up in D.C. and went to college in New York. How did you get to Providence?
After college I wound up back in D.C. and it just got increasingly expensive and increasingly boring. I was looking for places that were more affordable and had more vibrant arts communities. So it was a leap of faith. I thought about it pretty hard. I only knew a handful of people here, but it felt like the right place. I moved to Providence in February of 2020.
Oh geez. [laughs.]
[laughs] Yeah. Bummer.
How do you like Rhode Island so far?
I really like it. I’m still learning what it has to offer. I spend way too much money at Seven Stars Bakery. Empire Guitars — very cool. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a local shop of that caliber. The Columbus has been awesome; I’ve been to a couple shows there. I’ve been to outdoor shows. The quantity and variety of things I’ve seen have proven to me that this was the right place.
Did you play banjo and guitar growing up?
Electric guitar was my first instrument at 12. I made the jump to acoustic toward the end of high school and went fully trad/folk in college. I started banjo at 18. I ran into this band playing in an Ethiopian restaurant on U Street in D.C. After the show, I asked him about his banjo-playing. He told me how the banjo is descended from African instruments and developed in the hands of enslaved Africans here in the US, which I had no idea about. I went, “Well, now I have to learn more about it.” Come to find out that once it got to these shores, the first places where it really established itself was amongst enslaved people in the Chesapeake Bay region, which is where my family was from.
You’re a scholar of Black American and indigenous music. Why that area, specifically?
I found that there was so much to it, and that so little had been brought back in the way that I see white people reviving their own music in that community. I feel there’s a lot within that tradition that’s not properly represented when that music gets performed for a modern audience. I’ve seen that music performed in a way that makes it very palatable for white audiences and keeps it from deeply engaging with any of the difficult thorny issues that people were reckoning with when the music was taking shape. That’s never felt honest to me.
When I’m playing, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” — or “In The Pines,” people have different names for it — a lot of white bands who perform that, most people think it’s a love song or murder ballad. I think that song is quite plainly about a lynching.
That’s not to say the murder ballad interpretation is wrong. But I grew up hearing my dad tell stories that when people got lynched, oftentimes they just disappeared. It wasn’t always in the town square. People would literally vanish into the woods. What I did on this new project is go into the past, take on the darkness, go into the distant future, and take on that darkness and then bring it here, all in me. It was really hard. And I think, unhealthy, frankly. But I’m excited about what came out of it.
Wow. You cover “Didn’t It Rain” on the album. You’ve said you feel a kinship with Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Absolutely. I think there’s something exciting for every queer person in seeing a trailblazer that far back. Most of the time when we’re taught our history, it only goes back to Stonewall. Which, of course, is an act of erasure because there were queer people of color having similar demonstrations before Stonewall — those just don’t get talked about. Being able to go that far back and see someone working with traditional Black folk music — I feel a kinship there. I also just think her music rocks.
Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.