JAKE BLOUNT  -The New Faith (Smithsonian Folkways)

The New FaithA scholar of Black American music, for his new label debut Blount follows 2020’s highly acclaimed Spider Tales with The New Faith, an album of dystopian Afrofuturism that, conceived, written, and recorded during lockdowns, and likely inspired by Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable Of The Sower, offers radical arrangements of traditional songs in response to the question “What would Black music sound like after climate change renders most of the world uninhabitable?”  with Black Americans enduring the disproportionate burden of the looming climate catastrophe.

Divided into three sets of psalms and based on field recordings of Black religious services from the early-to-mid 20th century, it begins with The Psalms Of The Sentinel as, set on the shores of an island off Maine after the collapse of global civilisation, a group of Black refugees perform a religious ceremony. Opening a capella with the title refrain before being joined by Brian Slattery on  percussion and Mali Obomsawin on bass, the first track is ‘Take Me To The Water/Prayer’  sourced from a 1966 Alan Lomax recording of  Bessie Jones with additional material from her ‘Blow, Gabriel’ and ‘Angolas’ collected in 1688 from enslaved Africans in Jamaica, Blount taking on the preacher’s role as he declares “We gather here today to confess and be cleansed in the eyes of our creator/We gather here to be washed clean of the sins of humanity/We gather here to reject the greed of our forefathers/ Here, where dead sea meets withered land”, listing man’s crimes against the planet (“took things that they had neither desire nor use for, and threw them away”) before asking “What set man on the downward road?”.

Which is the title of the next track, collected by Lomax in South Carolina from negro convict Jim Williams between 1934  and 1939,  and again drawing on ‘Angola’, with Blount on fiddle and banjos and featuring handclap and stomp percussion as he sings how “our old wicked fathers/Thought they were doin’ mighty well/But when they come to find out/They done made up a bed in hell” punctuated by a rap by Demeanor  (“In a town where a means to a end would amount to a piece of the pie/Joe and Louie like peas in a pod, they wanna even the odds/They heard about the water rising/Made a plan to take advantage, had to enterprise it/Saw an opportunity, Louie was set, as soon as Joey said “it’s a bet.”/We can sell a boat, and can sell a boatload more for sure/If we never settle the debt, lo and behold and nevertheless/The water rose/Probably shoulda known the quickest thing that would sink/The irony is, is probably a pot of gold”) that marries contemporary and traditional in the song.

Learned from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson with Blount on banjo and growly blues electric guitar and Kaia Kater, Rissi Palmer and D’orjay The Singing Shaman joining on vocals, again driven by a handclap and clanging percussion rhythm, the gospel chant ‘Didn’t It Rain’ recasts the story of the Great Flood in the climate change context and how survival depends on your means (“Knock at the window, knock at the door/Cryin’ brother, can’t you take a couple more/Brother said, well, your wallet looks a little thin/If you can’t pay, you’d better learn to swim”)

Another prison song, collected by Lomax at Parchman Farm in 1948, a solo scraping fiddle lament by Blount, ‘Tangle Eye Blues’ comes from Walter “Tangle Eye” Jackson, a  penitent song of a convict  who pledges “Lord, if I ever get back home/I’ll never do wrong”.

The Psalms Of The Gravedigger kick off with ‘Parable’,  a spoken word track accompanied by fiddle and percussion that provides the narrative of 30  survivors who “worn down by storms and starvation, they set their sights northward, and followed the coast to find a new home”, many dying along the way, before concluding “Our ancestors were judged for their role in despoiling the earth, along with the rest of their generation/Their penalty was decimation/When they arrived on this island, only three of the original thirty remained”.

Blount on hollow banjo and strings, it’s back to spirituals for  the stomping ‘Death Have Mercy’, sourced from a 1959 recording by Vera Hall that, again interjected with rap by Demeanour, captures the fear of dying as the singer pleads “Spare me over another year”, with its chilling description of  the cold icy hands and “the way that death begins, it/Close your eyes and stretch your limbs”.

Continuing along mortality lines, here with death as an escape from suffering (“I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow/Tossed in this wild world alone/I have no hope for tomorrow/I’m tryin’ to make heaven my home”), another one man show with distorted resonant bass, ‘City Called Heaven’ was learned from a 1963 field recordings of Civil Rights Movement activist Fannie Lou Hamer recently reissued by his label on Songs My Mother Taught Me as part of the African Legacy series.

The notion that “The ones who have gone before me/Gon’ pilot me through as I go”, is picked up on the last of the psalms, Skip James’ Mississippi spiritual blues ‘They Are Waiting For Me’ (“I got loved ones/They are waiting/And watching for me…And then when I step into those beautiful pearly white gates/My loved ones, they are waiting/There for me”), Blount accompanied on fingerpicked guitar by virtuoso Samuel James,

The third section is The Psalms Of The Teacher, ‘Psalms’, with Lizzie Bo joining Kater, Palmer and D’orjay on vocals accompanied by Slattery’s hand percussion, being another spoken word number that continues the narrative of the survivors as they “turned their minds to the preservation of that (new found) wisdom (of their ancestors), that their progeny might survive and know the truths of the world”. Here the preacher advises to pull up the roots of avarice, that “A wise traveler will keep their companions close” because “What is crueler than wandering?/To wander alone!” and that “Every life has an ending/Every human being will have a final day/How shall we endeavor to meet ours?/Knowing that we have done what is right”, and to not seek for worldly possessions because “Who can hold the things of this earth forever?/Death, and death alone”.

There is a stark pessimism in “the ultimate destiny of all things that walk” as the march of civilisation is  one “from dark, to light, to dark again”, and that pragmatism informs ‘Just As Well Get Ready, You Got To Die’, a  Blind Willie McTell spiritual fleshed out with material from  Son House’s  ‘Yonder Comes My Mothers’ and  ‘Angola’ with Blount on pizzicato fiddle and banjo, that advises to a good life in the meanwhile  (“live in union…love your enemies”).

Sourced from an unknown singer in the Port Royal Islands and published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States, featuring another rap passage (here referencing Fibonacci), and arranged for handclap percussion, banjo and strings, ‘Give Up The World’ again treats on the inevitability of death but, as Demeanour says, of  realising life is about more than tangible things (“What about love and gravity?/What about humanity not defined by anatomy?/What about the feeling on the back of your neck when you leave a room?/Or the fact that your mama can always see through you?”) and “if you gon’ give up something/Give up whatever you wouldn’t take were you to go around it”.

It ends on an somewhat upbeat note back with Bessie Smith and Angola for a handclaps, stomps, banjo and choral vocals of  ‘Once There Was No Sun’, the story of the Creation,  and the contemporary subtext of not taking the planet for granted but, despite Blount’s view that the apocalypse is inevitable (“I believe that we have the ability to avert this future. I do not believe that we will make use of it”),  veined with the suggestion of a spiritual rebirth, a  new faith, from the darkness.

Both bleak and uplifting, a fusion of traditional and modern Black music, of Christian and more ancient beliefs, The New Faith is a remarkable album that confirms Blount’s status as one of the leading lights of contemporary folk music.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.jakeblount.com

‘The Downward Road’: