While the internet and social media are abuzz with chatter about U2’s Songs of Experience (which I do intend to review soon), I thought I would return in the meantime to one of my personal favourites in terms of musical interpretations of Blake, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project.
Born in Kentucky, with roots throughout the Appalachians, Redbone has long explored Native American music alongside other traditions such as soul, gospel and English folk music. Her first albums, Home of the Brave (2001) and Skintalk (2004), attracted very favourable critical reviews, and there is a very good interview with Tom Paul at Soul Tracks which outlines some of her early influences, whether George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Quincy Jones or Icelandic R&B. As Paul observes, while some of her influences are clear the sound is all her own.
The Garden of Love was released in 2012, her fourth studio album and combined these influences to create a truly wonderful musical setting for Blake’s poetry. As with her earlier albums, reviews were rightly enthusiastic and are perhaps best summed up by a headline from National Public Radio: “Blake’s Poems, Reborn As Bluesy Folk Tunes, Burn Bright”. Of the songs on the album, her single, “The Fly”, attracted most attention.
“Bluesy folk tunes” is too broad a phrase. What is particularly remarkable about Redbone’s music is how the Appalachian roots of her music come to the fore, for example “On Another’s Sorrow”, but also how other genres recreate Blake’s poetry, such as the more melancholy English traditions of “I Heard an Angel Singing” or gospel on “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”. What is particularly wonderful is that while the words are those of Blake (and thus, of course, immensely appealing to me) the songs really are Redbone’s: not only does Blake serve as an inspiration to her to create in her own image, but – like all great adaptations of Blake – it leads me to reconsider his work in new ways.
A remarkable example of this is “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”, in which Redbone is supported by a choir on one of the most joyful recordings of Blake’s poetry ever. To my astonishment, when I first heard it I didn’t even realise that this was William Blake, initially mistaking it for a more traditional gospel source such as Charles Tindley or Andrae Crouch. However, the words are very much those of Blake, taken from his Notebook:
I rose up at the dawn of day
Get thee away get thee away
Prayst thou for Riches away away
This is the Throne of Mammon grey
Said I this sure is very odd
I took it to be the Throne of God
For every Thing besides I have
It is only for Riches that I can crave
I have Mental Joy & Mental Health
And Mental Friends & Mental wealth
Ive a Wife I love & that loves me
Ive all But Riches Bodily
I am in Gods presence night & day
And he never turns his face away
The accuser of sins by my side does stand
And he holds my money bag in his hand
For my worldly things God makes him pay
And hed pay for more if to him I would pray
And so you may do the worst you can do
Be assurd Mr Devil I wont pray to you
Then If for Riches I must not Pray
God knows I little of Prayers need say
So as a Church is known by its Steeple
If I pray it must be for other People
He says if I do not worship him for a God
I shall eat coarser food & go worse shod
So as I dont value such things as these
You must do Mr Devil just as God please (E481)
There is not a single song on this album that is not worth listening to repeatedly and it is, to repeat, one of my favourite albums based on Blake’s work. Selecting one track from the album is invidious and, as such, I will simply end here with the opening title track which is a doorway to the rest of the album:
Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, CD, Blackfeet Productions Ltd., 2012.