Martha Redbone’s ancestors include Native Americans (Cherokee, Choctaw, and others) and African Americans. She also, writes her website biographer Kandia Crazy Horse, has “deep roots in Appalachian folk and Piedmont blues favored by the matriarchy that raised her on a rich sojourn from Clinch Mountain, Virginia to Harlan County, Kentucky and beyond to Brooklyn’s Dodge City-esque mean streets.” Redbone did a stint as a staff songwriter at Warner Bros., issued an album that became part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and then moved to London, where she sang R&B and funk and teamed up with UK instrumentalist Aaron Whitby.
Recently she issued The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, setting texts of the British poet to songs that return her to her old-time country and blues roots. I admire musicians who insist on coming up with something that reflects their entire complex background rather than simply following one strand of it, and if that were all Redbone had done, her show at the Ark on August 6 (see Nightspots) would be worth hearing. But The Garden of Love is even better than that. It has the uncanny quality of making you feel, at times, that the poems were just waiting for these settings to come along.
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.