SPOTLIGHT: Jake Blount on Traditional Music’s Built-In Science Fiction
Jake Blount (photo by Michael Last)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jake Blount is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for September. Read more about Blount and his new album, The New Faith, in our interview, and get more of the story behind the album in this mini-documentary.
Most people don’t look to banjo players like me for science fiction. Our instrument is firmly entrenched in the American consciousness as a symbol of cultural and political conservatism — a symbol of tradition. We have an idea about what “tradition” means in this country, and it applies to traditional music as well: closed-minded, slow to change, and self-consciously old-school. This perspective on the music, however, was paradoxically made possible by the advent of modern recording technology. It also neglects the implications of living musicians learning “traditional” music from mechanical and digital recordings rather than human beings. From my perspective, most of today’s traditional folk music is science fictional to some degree, and it follows that a traditional Black folk musician such as myself would turn to Afrofuturism.
Prior to the introduction of recording technology, it was not possible to convince ourselves that “tradition” meant immobility. Folk music, like most other forms of culture, was a sort of telephone game. For example: Fiddlers like myself would learn tunes from other members of our communities, or travelers who came through with instruments in tow. Even those of us who were of a mind to preserve a tune as that first fiddler played it would inevitably, intentionally or otherwise, make some changes. When we turned around and taught the tune to a third fiddler, they would learn it with our changes included — and then make changes of their own. Those changes would compound over time, resulting in different variations of tunes and newly composed works that recycled fragments of pre-existing songs. However closely we copy our teachers, we cannot help but to be individuals, and the interaction between our individual voices is a major catalyst for the growth of our culture and tradition.
Recording technology changed the picture in two major ways: First, in that each fiddler in the chain of transmission now has the ability to record their teacher and listen back ad infinitum, painstakingly recreating each oddly intonated note and bow stroke. They can even revisit that recording to “correct themselves” when they feel their own version has wandered too far from the source. Second, fiddlers can now jump back several links in the chain and learn tunes just as precisely from people they’ve never met or seen play in person. I’m not in a position to say whether these changes are good or bad, but some of their effects have been noted by many: the gradual loss of musical diversity as people learn tunes from different regions without immersing themselves in those regional styles, and the confinement of folk traditions to a Groundhog Day-esque time loop that limits which technologies and sounds are allowed based on which ones are present in century-old recordings.
I’m particularly interested in the latter of these two phenomena. I’ve spoken before about the biases I believe to be baked into sonic traditionalism: in particular, that it recreates the sound of a segregated early music industry intent on erasing Black people and Black sounds from the music. But there’s a deeper hypocrisy ingrained into the 21st-century traditionalist mindset: We flatter ourselves that we are closer to something ancient, but we are not learning from long-dead musicians when we study recordings of them. We aren’t learning from musicians at all. We are learning from electromechanical reproductions of musicians — limitlessly replicable acoustic automata that repeat the same few minutes over and over again, for as long as they endure.
Just as fiddlers cannot help but be individuals, each automaton has its own voice. For example: I’ve spent the past five years chasing a tune called “Rolling River,” as played by Murph Gribble, John Lusk, and Albert York. I’ve tried it with all different kinds of instrumentation, with different personnel, and in different spaces. In all that time, I’ve been unable to capture what I love most about the tune: the straining, evocative feeling that comes in the low B part while York rides a G chord on his guitar, Gribble picks around an E minor chord on the banjo, and Lusk alternates between the two chords on fiddle. Only recently did I realize that the feeling I’ve been missing is a product of the recording media. Whether it was the wax disc the recording was first cut into, the reel-to-reel tape it was transferred to in the Library of Congress, or one particular circuit or cable along the way, that automaton’s vocal timbre causes the instruments to melt into one another in the mid-range in a way that they don’t do live.
Imagine that: The elders I’ve spent years trying to emulate are not Gribble, Lusk, and York, but aluminum, wax, and plastic. I don’t even know what Gribble, Lusk, and York sounded like. What I’ve learned, and what I’ve taught, is a description of the tune cut into a disc by a machine and read aloud by a tape player; a fiction of the music, written and recited through science.
To be immersed in a folk tradition like old-time stringband music — one that uses archival life-support technologies to forestall birth, death, and the onward march of time — is to dwell a few short steps from the realm of science fiction. To be Black in the tradition necessitates traversing that gap, because all 20th-century Black banjoists and most Black fiddlers died before passing on their style and repertoire. Those of us who seek to revitalize the Black stringband tradition, in all its vastness and diversity, are utterly dependent on the automata; they are the only elders that remain to us. I only began to apply the term “Afrofuturist” to my music when I started working on my most recent release, The New Faith. In retrospect, however, I’ve been an Afrofuturist all along: an heir to a culture erased by decades of corporate record industry greed and prejudice, reliant on automata to teach me what I am.