Jake Blount '13

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Danny Stock

Spider Tales and Reparations

Meet Jake Blount ’13, award-winning banjoist, fiddler, singer, and scholar.

Jake is the 2020 recipient of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, a board member of Bluegrass Pride, and one half of the internationally touring duo Tui. He is a two-time winner and many-time finalist of the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (better known as Clifftop); he is also the first Black person to make finals in any category. In 2017, Jake received a BA in Ethnomusicology and released the EP Reparations. He specializes in the music of Black and Indigenous communities in the southeastern United States, and in the regional style of Ithaca, New York. His debut solo album, Spider Tales, released on May 29, 2020 to wide critical praise and positive coverage from NPR, Rolling Stone Country, Billboard Pride, and AV Club. Spider Tales later appeared on "Best of 2020" lists from NPR, Bandcamp, the New Yorker, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

  Photo credit (and above): Michelle Lotker

ake learned to play electric guitar at age 12, sang in the Middle School chorus led by Keith Hudspeth, and played in bands outside of school with his peers for several years. But he dropped music in High School and found community elsewhere at school through junior education programs and Rainbow Connections, the gender and sexuality alliance group. Still, a growing affinity for acoustic music continued outside of school.

As a High School junior in 2011, Jake attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) and became one of the student leaders of Thursday Teen Corps, a service program supporting middle school students from DC Public Schools. 

"If I have [a life-changing experience], it was SDLC, for sure,” Jake said. “Going to the conference was a really big paradigm shift for me. It really made me feel empowered to do a better job with my life than I was doing. So many of the extracurricular things that I did that wound up shaping how I engage with community,” he explained, were through work with the GDS Diversity Office at the time.

When Jake took a leadership role, he perceived that the social justice–focused curriculum of the Thursday Teen Corps tutoring program wasn’t working for the middle schoolers or the High School mentors. Jake said it felt problematic for privileged private school kids to be teaching DC Public School kids about marginalized communities. Experts engaged in community work every day, he explained, were better qualified to teach the middle schoolers about those social justice issues. Instead, he steered the mentoring program toward science instruction. 

Jake stands at microphone resting arm on banjo in blackbox theater blue light glows behind him

In November 2019, Jake Blount '13 returned to perform and speak with Middle School students.

“I somehow prevailed upon the science department to allow me—with supervision—to perform this experiment [precipitating bismuth metal from Pepto-Bismol] and explain it for those students,” he said. Hydrochloric acid in hand, he proceeded to explain chemical bonding while breaking the bonds within the bismuth subsalicylate and forming a heavy metal.

Jake has thought repeatedly over the past several years about the way the supervising teachers responded to his lesson. He recalled, “Both came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You are a great teacher and you should think about that.’ I consider myself someone who did not really find his skills until after he was an adult, so those moments, when someone in a position of evaluating me expressed such confidence in what I was doing, were really meaningful.”

Even as Jake built his musical acumen with lessons and bands outside of school, his GDS High School experience added enriching harmony to the score. He got his feet wet as an educator, developed leadership skills in community engagement, and learned to take ownership of his own narrative.

STORYTELLERS AS EDUCATORS

Each of the teachers Jake recalls the most have added important threads to the stories he weaves with his music today. C.A. Piling’s ecology and field biology—“easily the best and coolest class I’ve ever taken”—brought him into contact with Appalachia for the first time. “She took us to a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia, where we met Larry Gibson, who’d been really instrumental in the fight against mountaintop removal, even testifying in front of the U.N.” Now with his close musical ties to Appalachia, he spends a lot of time there. “I lean on the ecology elements of that class all the time now in conversation,” he said.

Former GDS English teacher Stanley Lau was determined to create a “welcome and rewarding environment for students of color and queer students,” Jake remembered. jon sharp helped shake up Jake’s complacent thinking, exploring a range of ideologies, radical politics, and also Queer Theory, “which wound up being really central to what I would do later in life,” he said.

Photo credit: Michelle Lotker

Mike Wenthe’s English class read Beloved and Paradise Lost. The study of religious canon, folklore, and Black literature resonated deeply for Jake. Mike, also a musician, knew the medieval folk balladry that Jake was so taken with at the time and played a duet with him in a school talent show. (See Mike’s story about working with Jake below).

“I feel like it's important to do education and performance alongside one another,” Jake reflected, looking back just weeks before a mid-October 2021 solo appearance at the Kennedy Center. At this apparent crossroads—a moment of increased awareness of historical disparities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national reckoning on race—Jake explained that people in any field must acknowledge and explore historical inequities in their fields. “There’s an urgency to that now and [it] hasn’t always been respected in the past. I'm presenting this folk music and I have to teach about the folk people to understand the folk music. We all have an obligation to ongoing learning and education.”

“I feel like it's important to do education and performance alongside one another,” Jake reflected"

WEAVING TALES AND TRADITIONS TOGETHER 

Jake received his first banjo lessons from Dr. Lydia Hamessley at Hamilton College in the fall of 2013 and, according to his website, “started to structure a course of study around the early traditional music of Black communities in the United States.” Jake took up the fiddle in the summer of 2014. He went on tour after graduation and soon received an offer for a 2019 Oceania tour that slingshotted his career. He and fiddler Libby Weitnauer formed the duo Tui (pronounced TOO-e) and put out their debut album, Pretty Little Mister, with material they developed between shows in Australia and New Zealand. He’s known for regendering old tales in new lyrics and strives, as he said, “to be visible and present,” foregrounding the experiences of queer people and people of color in his work as a musician who identifies as a queer and multiracial Black person.

In fall 2021, he finally had the opportunity to take his debut solo album, Spider Tales, on the road, as the COVID-19 pandemic waned, with a full backing band. For that album and the music he has been developing since, Jake has proceeded with a singular mission: reweaving all the diasporic threads of music from the American South back together. 

Photo credit: Margot Schulman

“All these different genres that we have, like bluegrass, country, folk, blues, and old time music, which is really the stuff I'm known for playing, all of those used to be considered one genre, one variegated musical landscape in the American South,” Jake said. “They got broken out into different categories, not because of the way they sounded, but because of the races of the people playing.”

The music industry recorded blues for Black musicians and “hillbilly” music for White musicians. Jake explained, “Despite the fact that White early country musicians also played blues songs and had learned a lot of their technique and repertoire from Black people, and despite the fact that a lot of the Black folks, who were playing jazz and blues at the time, could also play string band stuff, there was a lot of crossover that didn’t get recorded.” 

In a reclamation of the common roots of this music—and against that historical backdrop of what he called a “weird capitalist racist endeavor,” Jake released Spider Tales, which he said “sits in a cool place between all of these genres to break down those boundaries that aren’t rooted in the music or in the sound.”

Like Anansi the Spider of Akan mythology, from which Spider Tales takes its title, Jake stands visible and present at the crossroads of all the tales and music traditions he’s weaving together. His stories, in music or spoken in the interludes of a live show or workshop, instruct, transport, and, at times, take your breath away.

MIKE WENTHE’S STORY

I met Jake Blount at the beginning of my first day as a teacher at GDS. He was a student in first-period English 12, so he was part of the oldest cohort of GDS students that I know. I can still vividly recall conversations with him in class discussions, in hallway encounters, in Senior Paper conferences. Jake routinely brought a fierce moral intensity to bear alongside his fine interpretive acumen, and I think that combination corresponded with his wider experience as an artist and activist. 
Already at that time, Jake was starting to combine his musical endeavors with activism around identity and justice; I remember his excitement when he told me about debuting an original song at an activist event. A few years after his graduation, I ran into Jake performing outside the Tenley/Friendship Library as part of a musical outreach program. He demonstrated his expanded reach as a multi-instrumentalist—banjo and fiddle were now central to his playing—and he talked about his important research to excavate the work of under-acknowledged voices in what's sometimes called old-time music. 
"Jake routinely brought a fierce moral intensity to bear alongside his fine interpretive acumen."
For nostalgic reasons, I wish that one instrument still had a prominent place in Jake's repertoire: the musical saw. Jake was originally going to use his Senior Quest to learn how to play the fiddle; of course, he did learn fiddle eventually, but he switched gears for the Quest after reading about Luster's fascination with the musical saw in The Sound and the Fury (part of our spring-semester reading in English 12). I'm not sure if Jake was more amused by Luster's infatuation with the saw in the novel or intrigued in his own right by the realization that the instrument is literally just a saw that you play musically, with a bow. So for his Senior Quest, Jake learned to play the musical saw! He invited me to accompany him on guitar for part of his Senior Quest performance, but the highlight of that evening was surely his duet, with a fellow student on piano, of an Adele hit that he renamed “Sawmeone Like You.” Little did I know that his future musical career would be so vital and accomplished, but given his drive, his talent, his intelligence, and his fierce commitment, I am not surprised to see and hear him thriving as an artist and lifting up other artists alongside him.
 
Jake and Julia stand shoulder to shoulder in front of a GDS reunion bar

Jake Blount '13 with his sister, Julia '08, in 2018 at their fifth and tenth GDS reunions respectively. Julia, herself an educator, currently serves as Director of Upper Elementary (4–6) and Justice Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) at Echo Horizon School in Culver City, California, while continuing her studies as a doctoral student at USC Rossier Graduate School of Education. Previously, Julia taught Middle School history at GDS, where she helped develop the annual 7th-grade Power Project, and served as a co-advisor of Community Production, the annual show conceived, written, performed, and directed by Middle School students.

Learn more about Jake at jakeblount.com or @jake.m.blount on Instagram and TikTok.

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