William Blake, 1757-1827, is not a person who is usually mentioned in a 21st century music review. He was a noted English poet and painter who was an early advocate of free love. He also had a spiritual side but was a staunch critic of the organized church.
Martha Redbone is of combined Native American and African-American descent. Recognized as a leading lady of contemporary Native American music, she has shared the stage with such artists as Bonnie Raitt, Pete Seeger, Rita Coolidge, and George Clinton.
They may seem like an unlikely pair, as they are separated by two centuries, but their talents unite on Martha Redbone’s Roots Project, The Garden Of Love: Songs Of William Blake. It was her vision to write music for some of Blake’s poetry and adapt it to her brand of Appalachian roots and folk music. It may sound like an odd project but the result is one of the more interesting and creative albums of the year.
Essential to the project was Grammy Award-winning producer John McEuen who also co-wrote the music and contributed his talents on a variety of instruments including banjo, guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp, and lap dulcimer. Other key musicians include keyboardist David Hoffner, guitarist Mark Casstevens, bassist Byron House, and percussionist Debra Dobkin.
Redbone has a voice that reaches out and grabs you. It is a powerful instrument that conveys passion and emotion. It is comfortable in folk, rhythm & blues, and gospel settings. It can soar, seduce, and just entertain according to the needs of the song.
Blake had a philosophical side to many of his poems and they have adapted surprisingly well to an American roots format. The topics of life, death, celebration, suffering, and love fit well into Redbone’s Appalachian folk and Piedmont blues sensibilities.
The title track is about freedom, and Redbone’s vocal brings a poignant quality to it. “Hear the Voice of the Bard” is a vehicle for her voice to soar. “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day” finds her transforming romantic poetry into a gospel sermon. “I Heard an Angel Singing” is a mournful presentation of a spiritual journey.
The Martha Redbone Roots Project has issued a very unique album that takes the poetry of William Blake in a direction that even a free-thinker like Blake could not have possibly envisioned. It’s an album that deserves a good listen.