William Blake in Appalachia
Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience were, after all, called songs, and they might have been intended to be sung. Allen Ginsberg seized on their mystical aspects and recorded an album of them with piano and harmonium in the 1960s. Greg Brown released an album of straightforward folk versions in 1986. Redbone's interpretations confidently go beyond either of those, situating Blake's mixture of homely rhyme schemes and profound theology in Appalachia. It sounds like an odd mixture, but for Redbone it's the most natural thing in the world. "This is the song where William Blake jumped off the page singing and dancing all the way to Appalachia. A murder ballad that tells how anger when allowed to grow can corrupt one's soul," she writes of "A Poison Tree." And of "I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day," which receives a stomping gospel reading: "We certainly know how to talk to the Devil in Appalachia!"
Redbone sings in a reasonable facsimile of the classic Appalachian style, but her settings really come alive thanks to their musical variety. The music is acoustic Americana, with elements of old-time and contemporary country, blues, and gospel, each of those paired with Blake's lyrics in such a way as to suggest how Blake continues to address her own experiences. Her Native American background appears at a few well-chosen moments: for "Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames?," the only one of these poems in which Blake actually mentions the New World, "We welcomed him with the sound of a traditional Shawnee stomp dance," Redbone says. In total, this is a real tour de force.
[Originally published in August, 2013.]