By Daniel Garrett
Martha Redbone, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake
Words by William Blake
Music by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby, and John McEuen
Produced by John McEuen and David Hoffner
Blackfeet Productions, 2012
Martha Redbone is easily able to summon different inflections and tones, and uses an archaic wild voice, rising above rattle and strings, conjuring a world both natural and mythic in “The Garden of Love,” a world in which desire and love are possible but not free, a world in which priests forbid joy and death prospers. “Hear the voice of the Bard!/ Who Present, Past, & Future sees,” sings Redbone. Martha Redbone’s voice, accompanied by a banjo, has a country authority in “Hear the Voice of the Bard,” the earthy directness and force of honest, plainspoken people; but that voice becomes soft and waltzing in “How Sweet I Roamed,” though the language seems one of love and its betrayal. Spirituality can be found in nature, rather than a structure of wood, stone, and glass, asserts “Hear the Voice of the Bard.” It is a call to the individual soul, a call that connects an eighteenth century Englishman with nineteenth century Americans and a twenty-first century woman artist: Martha Redbone, an artist of voice and composition, considers Black Mountain in Kentucky her ancestral home, and she is a descendant of Cherokee, Choctaw, Shawnee, African-American, and English peoples; and one can hear her inheritance in her work, The Garden of Love, a collection of Appalachian folk and blues music featuring the poetry of William Blake. William Blake (1757-1827), a poet, engraver, and artist, was a man of spiritual vision, writing lyrics of simplicity and grandeur, of personal and philosophical morality; and he is best known for Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794).
On the Martha Redbone Roots Project’s The Garden of Love, Redbone’s accompanists are John McEuen on string instruments, such as banjo, guitar, and mandolin; David Hoffner on piano, accordion, and dulcimer; Mark Casstevens on guitar and harmonica; Byron House on upright bass; Debra Dobkin on percussion; and Aaron Whitby on keyboards. There is a very strong sense of rhythm, suggesting the momentum of urgent conviction, despite a sad theme—including the need for and urge toward empathy; and the nearness of divine presence—in “On Another’s Sorrow,” whereas “A Dream,” featuring flute and Native chanting, is one of those rare compositions that can sound classical or folk. (The flutist there is David Amram, and the chanter is Lonnie Harrington, a Seminole.) “I Heard an Angel Singing,” another song that mentions mercy and poverty, features singing that is hushed, feminine, strong, and precise. It may be important now to recall that William Blake not only saw the poverty in British society, but that he died poor. Martha Redbone has found an author who belongs to the canon and whose work signifies in lives today; and music such as this helps a culture to live a little longer, transmitting subject and sound, experience and values.
Spiritual strength is both cultivated and challenged in difficult lives; and the sentiment—the conviction to resist material temptation if it threatens morality and serenity—in “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” a spiritual hymn with a rocking church rhythm, is both modern and lasting. There is a slow, pushing rhythm—gritty and soulful—in “A Poison Tree,” a composition that acknowledges the danger of anger and fear and the practical virtue of honesty. It may be rhythm, as much as Martha Redbone’s voice and William Blake’s words, that will make The Garden of Love the most welcome of additions to anyone’s music collection: the rhythm is what allows the music to enter one’s body, while the voice touches the spirit and the words the mind.
Redbone’s voice is full of power in “The Echoing Green,” about village life, childhood, and change. A recognition of the smallest of living creatures, of the vulnerability of people, of all living things is presented in the composition “The Fly”—some of the words are: “For I dance/ And drink & sing:/ Till some blind hand/ Shall brush my wing”—performed in the most sensitive tone, with the sound of children nearby. The delicacy of voice and instrument is healing.
There is a male recitation—dramatic, formal—of the movement from slavery to freedom, from one land to another, with Native American chanting beneath it in “Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames.” That is intended to be a declaration from the perspective of Martha Redbone’s great, great-grandfather, an Englishman who moved to Virginia’s Appalachian mountains and married a woman who was Shawnee and Cherokee; and it is spoken by Jonathan Spottiswoode. A soothing lullaby, tender and soulful, is “Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright.”
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.