Back in February, we were delighted to host the first Homegrown concert of 2023 here at the Library of Congress. The concert was a solo performance by the banjo player, fiddler, and singer Jake Blount, an award-winning musician and a scholar of African American musical traditions. We presented Jake as part of Live! at the Library, the series featuring extended visiting hours and special programming every Thursday night. It was also part of the Black History Month celebrations at the Library of Congress and was presented in cooperation with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. Like other blogs in the Homegrown Plus series, this one includes a concert video and a video interview with the featured performer (in this case Jake Blount), plus links and connections to Library of Congress collections.
Normally we would have held Jake’s concert in the historic Coolidge Auditorium, but that storied hall was unexpectedly closed for necessary repairs. As a result, the concert was held in the seldom seen Members Room, LJ-162. One benefit of this was that Jake had a spectacular and appropriate backdrop: a wall with a stunning mosaic by Frederick Dielman honoring history, mythology, tradition, and even folk music. See the full mosaic below!
Because of the angle of our stage lighting, the gold names of Thucydides, Herodotus, Hume, and Gibbon shine the most brightly during Jake’s concert, but there are other names of historians too, as you can see in the picture above. The depiction of “Mythology” on the left with a globe and “Tradition” on the right with a distaff brings folklore and folklife firmly into the mosaic’s depiction of history, and the young man with the lyre makes traditional music part of it too. We think it’s appropriate that Jake, and the music he performs, are placed in this context. The concert was part of the Library’s celebration of Black History Month, and Jake’s music represents the often neglected and erased histories of people of color. This context helps us recognize it as part of our national and global history. (For more on the mosaic, see this link on the Library’s virtual tour!)
OK, maybe that’s too many words and not enough music! Please enjoy Jake’s concert in the player below!
A couple of hours before Jake’s concert, I sat down with him to discuss his life and music. He had a lot to say about folk music, and especially what it’s like to be involved with old-time music as a fiddler and banjo player, and as a person of color. We also talked about his musical influences, and (of course) some of his archival sources. You can see the interview in the player below.
Collection Connections and Links
Jake Blount is enthusiastic about exploring archival sources in his concerts and recordings, and this concert featured a lot of material with connections to our archive. Here you’ll find links relating to Jake Blount’s music, as well as links to Library of Congress collection items and other archival collections connected to his songs and the traditions he draws upon.
Jake began his concert with “Stole and Sold from Africa,” a fascinating spiritual that has its roots in the abolitionist movements of the 19th century. An early version (or at least a related song) titled “The Song of the Coffle Gang” was published in abolitionist song collections The Liberty Minstrel, compiled by George Washington Clark in New York, 1844, and The Anti Slavery Harp, compiled by William Wells Brown in Boston, 1849. Most people nowadays associate the song with traditional singer Addie Graham of Kentucky. There are recordings of Graham in AFC’s Jean Ritchie and George Pickow collection, and Jean Ritchie knew the song too, so it might well be in that collection. But the version AFC has online is a video by Mike Seeger from his last performance in the Coolidge Auditorium back in 2007. I believe Mike learned it from Addie Graham too, though I couldn’t swear to it. See Mike Seeger’s performance of the song at this link.
Jake performed “Tangle Eye Blues,” which Alan Lomax recorded at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, in late 1947. “Tangle Eye” was the nickname of inmate Walter Jackson, from whom Lomax recorded 9 songs in 1947 and 1948, including this signature piece. All the Tangle Eye recordings are in the AFC archive, and you can find all of them online at this link from the Association for Cultural Equity.
Jake performed “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in the style of William Hamilton Stepp. I wrote a blog about that field recording and its effect on popular culture, where you can also hear it, at this link.
Jake performed Skip James’s classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” Nehemiah “Skip” James was a blues and gospel performer who recorded several commercial 78s for Paramount in 1931, including the song Jake covers. His recordings were not a great success at the time, and coincided with a downturn in the music market caused by the Great Depression. As a result, he gave up recording the blues, but continued to work in music as a choir director. James was one of several blues performers who came out of retirement after being sought out by revivalists who were fans of their records; in 1964 John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine sought him out and found him in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. He had a revival in his blues career lasting until his death in 1969. In 1966, Alan Lomax arranged for a crew to film and record portions of the Newport Folk Festival, including performances by James. Find those Skip James recordings at this link on the Association for Cultural Equity site. Lomax also filmed James’s friend Jack Owens singing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in 1978, with harmonica player Bud Spires. Find the Owens and Spires video at this link on the Cultural Equity site.
Jake played “Roustabout,” which he learned partly from recordings of Dink Roberts. Roberts, an African American banjo player from North Carolina, was recorded by folklorists off and on from the early 1970s until his death in 1989. You can read all about Dink Roberts and his music in the liner notes to Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina by Cece Conway and Scott Odell, available as a pdf at this link. In 1983, Alan Lomax filmed Dink Roberts playing for a TV documentary. Find the video of Dink Roberts playing “Roustabout” at this link on the Cultural Equity site.
Jake played “Do Lord Remember Me,” and told a touching story about his grandmother’s love of the old spiritual. He said he learned it from a print source by John and Alan Lomax and asked if the field recording was at AFC. I gave him the thumbs-up at the time, but it turns out it’s a complex question. The Lomaxes printed it in American Ballads and Folk Songs but didn’t indicate who their source singer was. Other sources make it clear that John Lomax knew the song in 1911, and might have recorded it during his first period of fieldwork in Texas in about 1908, from which the cylinder recordings do not survive. So in fact we don’t know if any specific field recordings were used by the Lomaxes, or if they still exist. However, the reason for my thumbs up is that we do have some prominent field recordings of the song associated with John Lomax. In 1936 Lomax and his Library of Congress boss, Harold A. Spivacke, visited the Virginia State Prison Farm near Crozier, and recorded among others James Strother and Joe Lee. Strother, often known as “Blind Jimmie Strothers” became influential through these recordings. Strother and Lee performed “Do Lord Remember Me” with Strother singing and playing banjo and Lee “beating straws,” or hitting Strother’s banjo strings with wires to produce additional rhythmic notes. This was released on our 1943 LP Negro Religious Songs and Services (AFS L10), and you can read the liner notes here. The LP is out of print, but many compilations have licensed the song, and you can watch this licensed video at YouTube. John and Ruby Lomax recorded the song again, performed by John R. “Blind Gipson” Gipson and his wife, at the home of H.R. Weaver in Merryville, Louisiana, on May 15, 1939. Lomax called this recording “When My Blood Runs Chiller and Cold.” You can hear the Gipsons sing it at this link.
Jake played the fiddle tune “Brown Skin Baby,” which he learned from Harry Bolick, who in turn collected it from Mississippi fiddler Lloyd Jeptha “Jabe” Dillon. In other contexts, Jake has pointed out that Dillon often credited the tune to an African American fiddler he just called “Old Dennis.” Jake has further noted that there’s a pattern of white traditional musicians crediting their African American sources incompletely, acknowledging that there WAS a black source but making it impossible to identify exactly who that source was. This has tended to erase or obscure the contributions of specific Black folk musicians compared to those of their white counterparts. In this case, for example, you can hear Jabe Dillon’s playing of this tune at this link, but Jake has been unable to track down “Old Dennis” from Dillon’s vague description.
Jake played “City Called Heaven,” which he learned from recordings by civil rights activist and singer Fannie Lou Hamer. You can read about Hamer and the song in the liner notes to her Smithsonian Folkways CD, written by Mark Puryear. We don’t have recordings of Mrs. Hamer online, but we do have videos of two people who knew Mrs. Hamer talking about her legacy. Activist Jennifer Lawson shared her experience in the Civil Rights Movement, including interactions with Fannie Lou Hamer, in this interview. Writer and journalist Charles Cobb spoke about Hamer in the fascinating context of his book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.
Jake finished up his concert with “Haul Away Joe,” a sea shanty he learned from Lead Belly. Lead Belly recorded the song commercially, and there’s a licensed video on YouTube here. In the set up to the song, Jake said “Bet you didn’t know Black people sang sea shanties. But we did!” This is an important point, and you can read much more about sea shanties, including the importance of African-descended singers to the shanty tradition, in my blog “A Deep Dive into Sea Shanties,” which also features many audio clips, including another version of “Haul Away Joe.”
As always, thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. The idea of the Homegrown Plus series is to gather concert videos, video interviews with the musicians, and connections to Library of Congress collections together in one place for our subscribers. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here!)
For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress.