Five tracks into Jake Blount’s visionary album, The New Faith (out September 23 on Smithsonian Folkways), he delivers a story he wrote, titled “Parable.”
It tells of a group of climate refugees who have landed on an island off the coast of Maine after storms and famine ravaged their homeland in the American South. Behind his speaking voice is pizzicato, dissonant, minimalist instrumentation driven by sparse percussion that takes the listener past his story and into a tremendous retelling of the traditional “Death Have Mercy.” This tune is updated to the present—the far-past of Blount’s imagined future—via a pair of verses delivered with exquisite, articulate intuition by rapper Demeanor.
The one-two punch of this center of the album feels like a perfect snapshot of what Blount does so well throughout: pulling together anachronistic folk elements to cast an imagined future where the present-present and present-past have become synonymous. The fact that it all feels like it exists beyond any logical notion of time, is no mistake.
Over the phone this week, Blount clarified: “I’m not interested in time moving in a straight line.”
The title of “Parable” is also a bit of a nod toward the late Black, queer Afrofuturist novelist Octavia E. Butler, to whom Blount dedicated his album. The songwriter sees the novelist’s influence so powerfully in his own creations that he can chart his work alongside hers. By his measurement, The New Faith is closest to Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Indeed, both imagine a future community who are reckoning with climate change. In Butler’s novel, the characters have an eye toward other planets; in Blount’s, the characters turn to the old folk songs to find a way to survive on this one.
“We’re thinking about the future travails of these individuals and communities,” he explains. “[I’m] …going forward and taking on some of those wounds and trials and bringing them back to now.”
The wounds are raw on The New Faith, as they are in the present day. It’s hard to get far into the album without being consumed by the sheer physicality of it. After all, through his thoughtful arrangements, and his reimagining of these old songs, Blount casts a group of people indelibly impacted by the weather. Thus, there is heat and cold, just as there is joy and fear. There are hands clapping and feet stomping. There is a static effect that sounds like waves breaking. There is a distant hum and a close echo. As is true of all the best recordings of folk music, it is not just music we’re hearing, but a time and a place.
There are also banjos and fiddles and guitars and plenty of voices—in addition to percussionist/producer Brian Slattery and bassist Mali Obomsawin (Lula Wiles), Blount brought in Rissi Palmer, Lizzie No, Kaia Kater, D’orjay The Singing Shaman, Brandi Pace, and Lillian Werbin to round out his decidedly trad sound.
Further, whether speaking, singing, or stepping aside for Demeanor’s rap verses, Blount plays not only with the Venn diagram of trad folk and Black diaspora music, but also with the idea of “voice” and what it means to give voice to grief and survival. This is what makes the record often feel irrelevant to the concept of “time.”
His “Didn’t It Rain,” with its nod to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, travels on Blount’s voice beyond Tharpe’s determination to find joy in fear. Blount goes all the way to something like humor.
When he delivers a solo rendition of “They Are Waiting for Me,” it is with a trad folk-blues on the electric guitar. Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine this man singing alone a century ago, as clearly as the present day, as clearly as a century into the future. Though his circumstances may be different depending on the times, the grief and hope, the reckoning with mortality, the defiant optimism is always the same.
Another layer of meaning becomes apparent when one realizes the character may only have access to electricity in spurts. Suddenly, the joy of the song takes on new depth as we realize this is perhaps the moment this month when he might have enough electricity to make it through a whole song. How does he use his voice and his instrument? With love.
Indeed, what instruments to use and when was a deeply considered concern for Blount, with some notable limitations.
“There’s only so much I can do, instrument-wise,” says the multi-instrumentalist, noting that he turned to Obomsawin for bass lines. “That was the biggest limiting factor right off the bat. I have fiddle, banjo, banjo-uke, and guitar to work with, and my voice of course, which is … used to provide harmonic context as much as it’s used to provide lyrical context. … Brian had more percussion experience than me and did most of the percussion tracks for the album. But I think even more than that, … the other consideration was: What would the people in the album context have access to?”
This last question led him to relying on the folk instruments, the knowledge that these people would find a way to make drums, the prevalence of hand claps and choral voices. The same question led him to an obvious need to include new, original rap verses in these old songs.
“If you think about the world I’ve set up,” he says, “where technology has regressed back probably one-to two-hundred years, … I personally think what you’re going to fall back to are the things that you’re able to do with your own body and voice, and objects around you. Rap, oftentimes, is just somebody speaking and percussion. There’s usually some melodic content as well, and that can come about through other people singing, it can come from an instrument. It’s very flexible, but it’s a low-maintenance artform. It doesn’t require a lot of resources. … It’s become the dominant mode of expression in Black music, and really pop music everywhere, right? It’s spread across the globe. I don’t see a future where that isn’t present in some way, shape, or form.”
Blount, an expert of folk music traditions, is well-aware that there are various schools of thought when it comes to performing the old songs—and whether rap is considered a folk art at all. Some artists and audiences are of the mind that the songs should be kept intact as relics of the past, while others believe they are there to be added to and built upon. Blount believes strongly in the latter, and The New Faith is all the better for it.
“There’s a lot of pressure from the community,” he says, “to make yourself invisible and just try to channel the art and perspectives of other people, whom you haven’t met. I think there’s a lot of merit in that—de-emphasizing the individual, where a lot of music can, to a fault, be the artist talking about themselves. But I also think it sometimes leaves you with a feeling of dislocation.
“I’m here in the modern era doing this,” he adds. “I have to pretend that everything I’m doing [artistically] is not up to par with these things that happened a hundred years ago? I personally find that kind of crushing, to treat everything that I do as an unworthy copy.
“My way of continuing to pay respect to the tradition, while also allowing myself to have a voice in it, was to throw this thing a few hundred years into the future, to where I am one of the ancestors. My voice is allowed to be part of it.”
The New Faith is available HERE.