We hear a lot about roots music and Americana nowadays, but do we ever stop to ask ourselves whose roots people are talking about? Whenever I hear people talking about Americana music, I can't help thinking of the movie Songcatcher. A music anthropology professor travels to the Tennessee hill country to record so-called mountain music and discovers the people are singing the songs their Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over from the old country. This so-called American folk music is transplanted songs of another culture sung with new accents. Of course there are other roots aside from the Anglo/Irish/Scotch in the music of the Appalachians. There were the Native Americans who were the area's original inhabitants and the African Americans who were brought in as slaves to work the land. While the former might not have contributed much directly to the music it was their land in which it took root. The latter contributed the banjo, the instrument no self-respecting roots music group can live without.
Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that a woman of Native and African descent would put out a disc of music with lyrics taken from the poems of the 18th-19th century British poet William Blake set to the sounds of all three of the region's inhabitants. The Garden Of Love: Songs Of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project is one of those wonderful meetings of minds and culture that comes along once in a while that literally takes your breath away. On the surface it might sound like the most outlandish thing you've ever heard, setting the words of William Blake to the music of North America. However, there's a long tradition of adapting his words to music. The British hymn "Jerusalem", taken from the short poem "And did those feet in ancient time" from the preface to his epic Milton a Poem is the best known example. Of course history has shown us there's an equal precedent for adapting the work of the British Isles as American folk music.
There was always a very strong spiritual streak to Blake's work and while it was firmly rooted in Christianity, he expressed it in terms transcending the confines of doctrine. Instead of poetry worshipping his God directly, he wrote pieces of gratitude for what he saw as the gifts given humanity by its creator. The poems Redbone has elected to adapt praise the natural world around us, love, and the gift of freedom. These themes are not only universal, but are ideally suited to the unique combination of musical traditions Redbone draws upon for this disc. There's a rawness and honesty of emotion in Blake's poetry that requires it be set to music capable of expressing their ideas in an as unaffected and straightforward a manner as possible. However, it also requires the music to be emotionally and spiritually honest and powerful.