In 2012, Martha Redbone, a versatile singer of African and Native American heritage, released The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake. She is far from the first musician to have tried to bring Blake’s songs (many of his poems were intended to be sung) to life on record–it’s a tempting task, you have to admit, though a daunting one. My past favorites had been by The Fugs, who, under the guidance of poet Ed Sanders and polymath Tuli Kuperfberg, waxed yearning, fragile versions of “How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field” and “Ah, Sunflower! Weary of Time,” and (really, very unsurprisingly) The Fall’s wicked “Jerusalem.” However, Redbone’s album (fascinating from beginning to end) broke the hold of those songs. How to describe it? Well, it’s like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack–with teeth. It’s not only the often-hidden darkness and destruction in Blake’s poems that provide that bite; it’s also Redbone’s carefully controlled blues inflections, terse line deliveries (amidst much joyousness), and musical settings, which nicely fit (and sometimes provide ironic commentary on) the great Dissenter poet’s complexity. Three wonderful cases in point are at the heart of the record: her black gospel–cum-bluegrass “I Rose Up At the Dawn of the Day” (“…for riches I should not pray…if I pray / It must be for other people…” and “I have mental joy and mental health / I have Mental friends / and mental wealth…I have all the riches bodily.”), her devastating blue–cum-bluegrass “A Poison Tree”–a starker warning about repression does not exist–and the clarion a capella “The Ecchoing Green.”
Here she is in 2016, knocking the title song out of the park:
Thing is, the record was released under the name “Martha Redbone Roots Project.” I noticed that immediately upon laying hands upon the CD, then came back to it after a mesmerizing first listen, and murmured to myself, “What next? If it’s a project, and that’s the first result, what further glories await?” (That’s rather formal murmuring, but it’s how I roll.) But we’re six years down the line–almost to the day–and no follow-up. I am encouraged that the above video performance is so recent, but even it is over two years old.
I’m gettin’ on one knee, Martha, and I’m somewhat of a Dissenter myself, but I’ll do my version of praying that you have another powerful Roots Project rekkid in the chute. I will play The Garden of Love as long as I am sentient, and I am sure as I age, its power will grow–that’s Blake, that’s poetry, that’s your commitment and vision–but I pray for you that you’ve experienced new inspiration visions.
Only the strong stuff this day.
The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vols. 8-9: late Columbia-period Lady Day, my favorite, with her startling “Tell Me More and More and Then Some” and her perfectly blue and resigned “The Man I Love.”
Billie Holiday: Lady in Autumn. That title is correct–she’s a different but cannier singer (and she was canny to begin with), and if you need a boost, read Zadie Smith’s classic Holiday short story, which I never tire of pushing and which never fails to send me rushing to the “H” section of my stacks. Better yet, play the audio track of Smith’s supernatural reading of the piece and dig Jerry Dantzig’s pics of Lady in Harlem in ’57, which inspired the story.