In a world in which the ruling class’s grasp on power is always tenuous, the erasure of marginalized identities and histories is very real. We can currently see it happening in real time in the U.S., with public health statistics being manipulated to paint a rosier picture of COVID-19 deaths. We can also study it in hindsight, thanks to the work of historians like Howard Zinn, whose A People’s History of the United States tells a very different tale than what we are taught in school. It is one that is fraught with heroism and heartbreak, sacrifice and struggle, oppression and redemption.
That true history is also captured in the songs of a people, sung aloud and handed down in coded language to disguise the messages from those who wish to quell it. In each generation, though, voices have risen to keep the traditions alive. Now, fiddler/banjoist Jake Blount has raised his hand to join the ranks of Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Dom Flemons, and others intent upon reclaiming the heritage and restoring the history of Black roots music.
Joined here by Tatiana Hargreaves, Blount works through “Beyond this Wall” from his upcoming debut album Spider Tales (out 5/29 on Free Dirt Records). Written by Judy Hyman well before anyone in particular was talking about building any walls, the tune was actually named by Hyman’s husband, Jeff Claus, after he saw an old photo of the entrance to a lesser-known concentration camp. Blount welcomed the tune into the Black string band canon because the experiences of and expressions by one group of marginalized people very often mirror those of another.
“The tale of how [this tune] entered the Black string band tradition is long to tell in detail, but it happened at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia,” Blount explains. “I felt it was important to include ‘Beyond This Wall’ on the album not only because of the title’s newfound significance, but also to show that the tradition these tunes and songs come from is still alive, growing, and expanding.”