Martha Redbone’s Journey to William Blake
Guest Blog by Zach Hudson
The amazing thing about singer-songwriter Martha Redbone’s new album, The Garden of Love, which sets to music twelve poems of English poet William Blake (1757 – 1827), is how well everything fits. It was as if the two were made for each other. Redbone herself tells of a similar feeling in an interview with NPR’s Robert Seigel:
“We had his book of poetry out, and the first song that jumped off the page was ‘A Poison Tree.’ Just the title sounded so naturally Appalachian, which is where my family is from… To me, it was just almost as if the song had always existed in the words.” On The Garden of Love, Redbone draws on American folk, country, blues, bluegrass and gospel to orchestrate Blake’s poems, and her ability within these genres is incredibly varied, moving from foot-tapping melodies to lullabies to gritty laments backed by dobro.
This connection shouldn’t be too surprising. Blake drew heavily on the English folk ballad tradition, and much American folk music came from English ballads. In a way, Redbone’s album is like distant cousins meeting for the first time. They still share much in common—for instance, a love of meter and rhyme, so much so that an awkward or archaic phrasing (“does arise” instead of “arises”) for the sake of the beat or the rhyme is not only permitted, but customary. They share thematic interests: love, suffering, salvation, journeys, and music itself. There is a certain mystic weirdness, often involving metaphor, that American folk music inherited from the English ballad (I think of songs like “Wedding Dress”, “The House Carpenter”, “Wild Hog in the Woods”), and Blake shares this mystical quality. Consider “A Poison Tree”:
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears…
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
Although the lines of may seem foreign to the pop charts, they certainly aren’t out of place in Appalachian song. Curiously, “A Poison Tree” has been put to music by many other songwriters, such as Benjamin Britten (classical), Greg Brown (folk), Blur (rock), singer-songwriter Beth Orton and the Finnish a capella group Rajaton. In my opinion, Redbone is the only one to have really nailed it.
It often feels like Blake was writing lyrics in the first place. Alongside the fact that he entitled his most famous books “Songs of Innocence” and “Song of Experience”, his poems are written clearly in a verse structure, with even lines in multiples of four. This makes the transition much easier to folk music, but Redbone doesn’t simply take what she is given. She adapts her material to create something spectacular. For the first part of “The Garden of Love”, for example, Redbone uses two stanzas from another of Blake’s poems to round things out. The poem she chooses fits the theme and meter perfectly, and no one would think they were separate poems unless they knew beforehand.
Some lyrics fit song even better than recitation: “No, no! never can it be! / Never, never can it be!” sounds overdone when spoken, but when sung it becomes a punchy refrain. Redbone uses this ability to great effect, giving herself license to edit and reposition lines. She is faithful to the poetry, but that doesn’t mean she sticks to the plodding rhythm of a written line. If a note needs to be held for an extra beat, or if a four line stanza needs six measures to sing, she lets it happen.
This power that singers have—something poets on the page can never have—is significant. Singers can dictate the exact rhythm they want, instead of leaving it up to the natural rhythm of speech. Whereas we read a line of Blake’s like this:
Oh my children! do they cry,
Do they hear their father sigh?
Redbone can re-imagine it as this:
Oh my child- (beat, beat) -ren! do they cry (beat, beat, beat)
Do they hear their fath – er – sigh?
The effect is wonderful. It breathes life and vitality into the line. Kyle Alden found success for a similar reason with his 2011 album Songs from Yeats’ Bee-Loud Glade, which undertook a project similar to Redbone’s with the poetry of the Irish writer W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939).
The music can also change the feeling of a poem. “The Echoing Green” used to seem a bit trite to me. It’s a calm, pastoral poem about remembering the enjoyments of youth, but Redbone sings in a minor key, unaccompanied, and it sounds straight out of the Appalachian hills.
One aspect of American folk music that connects particularly well with Blake’s poems is religion. Redbone uses the tradition of hymns and gospel music to re-envision some of Blake’s spiritual poems. In “Hear the voice of the Bard”, the lines
…Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
are perfect for a country gospel arrangement, and would be impossible to tell apart from this tradition. Blake was intensely spiritual. As much as he ranted against the established church, he was deeply religious and rejoiced in the compassion of Jesus and the promise of salvation. On “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day”, Redbone goes whole-hog and gets a gospel choir to back her up. I can’t help but sway and clap my hands. I wonder if Blake would have done the same. It’s hard to get a sense of what Blake would have been like in person. His works and his biographers paint him as intense, opinionated, quirky, compassionate, and reverent. He was alternately (or concurrently) a loving husband, an obsessive artist and a social reformer. If he was anything, though, Blake was into Art, and Rocking the Boat, and the Common People, so I like to think he would have appreciated Redbone’s music.
I remain amazed at how Redbone can give such a perfect slice of Americana even when introducing a foreign element to it. This album could serve as a sampler of styles within American folk music, and Redbone hits each one squarely on the head. My only regret for the album is that it does not cover even more songs. I now wonder what some of my other favorite Blake poems, like “The Tyger”, “London” or “The Chimney Sweeper”, would sound like after Redbone has worked her magic on them.
Martha Redbone Roots Project: Hear the Voice of the Bard
Martha Redbone Roots Project: A Poison Tree
Thanks to Zach Hudson for this guest blog. He was the perfect person to write this review because he reviews both roots music (for the Victory Music Review), and poetry (for his blog New Poetry Review). Zach is a teacher, author and square dance caller in Portland, Oregon. You can find his new children’s book The Banjo on Amazon.