Many artists and thinkers recover the past to make sense of the present. Musician and scholar Jake Blount does just that, but he also asks us to reconsider the past as he does so. With The New Faith, he reworks traditional spirituals to apply to a future setting. The question he explicitly asks is: “What would Black music sound like after climate change renders most of the world uninhabitable?” In reformulating past art for that inquiry, he also raises questions about how this music has always worked, where it came from, and what it means as part of an ongoing tradition. As heady as the concept may be, Blount performs with an ease that renders the songs especially listenable and compelling.
Blount’s “Death Have Mercy” most immediately demonstrates how his art functions. The song is first credited to Lloyd Chandler and either prompted by a conversation with God or adapted from Appalachian tradition. Variations of the music have been recorded roughly 100 times in the past 100 years, but Ralph Stanley’s 2000 rendition for O Brother, Where Art Thou? put the piece into mainstream consciousness (and best echoes back to Chandler’s approach). In the film, the beautifully performed song works as part of an idealized recreation of old-timey music, serving the narrative for dramatic tension within a vast Western mythos and a predominantly white lens, though filmmakers the Coen Brothers play with that idea.
Blount brings it into the African American context. In the futuristic setting of his narrative, it resists the inevitable climate-driven destruction. In the performance, it adds a groove and makes space for rapper Demeanor to run most of the song. He writes his verses to mix romantic and religious language. Death becomes less a skeletal figure in a robe and more an imminent part of life’s fabric. With that condition, Demeanor and Blount could turn fatalist, but they see it instead as a reason to push on for something more. In a historical sense, the performance asks us to consider the song’s meaning in a country in which minorities will disproportionately face the effects of climate change and then consider how we might resituate the music within the American folk canon.
In the ever-nearing climate catastrophe of the album (and of reality), Blount mixes various folk styles – spirituals, but also blues, Appalachian, and hip-hop. “Psalms” would be jarring were there not a number of spoken moments throughout the album. This track sounds almost high church liturgical with its read leader-and-congregation pattern (similar to musical call-and-response). The mix climaxes with “Give Up the World”, a blend of clawhammer banjo, rapping, and call-and-response (with both parts handled by Blount). The track sounds like the future of tradition, using new ideas to “Just feel the energy of what our mamas sing to us.”
The album ends with “Once There Was No Sun” and its remembrance of angels singing. Blount makes old traditions new, but one aspect of it never changes, as evident on this final track. Folk music has its own way of powering through the attrition of life to find ways to go on. For all of Blount’s intelligence on the record, it might be this heart that comes through strongest. You can study the traditions like a scholar, but make sure you hear them like a wounded soul carrying on.