“Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love”: In The Garden of Love with Martha Redbone
As Elton John and Bernie Taupin can testify, a strong partnership between a musician and a lyricist can be worth its weight in platinum. So when singer Martha Redbone began to work on material for a new album, she decided to collaborate with one of the best writers to ever put pen to paper: Romantic Era poet William Blake. The stunning result, The Garden of Love, is one of 2012’s under-the-radar gems.
Part Choctaw and Shawnee, Martha Redbone is from Black Mountain, Kentucky, and was raised to the sounds of folk and country music. As a musician, her own material stayed mostly in the soul and R&B realms on albums like 2004’s Skintalk. But two earth-shifting events, the birth of her son, Zachariah, and the loss of her mother, Patricia, led her to turn to the music of her heritage for her fourth release. “When you have a child, you feel the need to plant seeds for his future and think about the example you want to leave him,” Redbone says, calling from her Brooklyn home. “And when you lose your elders, you start thinking about where you come from.”
Wanting to blend her Appalachian and Native American roots for an album, she and her other songwriting partner—unlike Blake, this one’s on the right side of the soil–Aaron Whitby, called upon John McEuen of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who also lives in New York; they had been friends for a few years and occasionally sat in on one another’s shows. McEuen jumped onboard and the trio began working on an album that would include Redbone’s original material and traditional mining songs. But inspiration, as it often does, came from an unexpected source, and Redbone’s musical plans changed.
One day Whitby, who is also her keyboard player and husband, rediscovered a collection of Blake poems on the couple’s bookcase; when he pulled the book off the shelf, it opened to “A Poison Tree.” “The words spoke to me like an old country song,” Redbone explains. “That lit the spark and I started looking at his other poems. Instead of pulling one and throwing him among classic coalmining songs, I wanted to make a collection to celebrate his work, which is incredible, still. It has these messages of mercy, pity, peace, and love that are relevant today, when we have all this madness around us.”
McEuen, who admits he hadn’t read much Blake aside from that staple of high school English classes, “The Tyger,” was intrigued by the idea of taking the words of a man he describes “the Jim Morrison of the 1800s” and setting them to Appalachian music, “as though William Blake had grown up in West Virginia.”
Redbone and partner Aaron Whitby looked through more than 100 Blake poems, eventually whittling their list down to the high teens and selecting a dozen to include on The Garden of Love, focusing on the poems with imagery that recalled Appalachia: “There are a lot of rolling hills, and he uses the language of the Bible, of the church, which is a big part of the South and of my family, too…to me, it felt natural to sing in this style.”
Some of their other song choices were a little more light-hearted: “I chose ‘The Ecchoing Green’ because one of the lyrics was ‘Old John with white hair’ and, for me, that was John McEuen. So when I found that one, I emailed it to him and said, ‘I think Blake knew that you were going to be part of the record. He included you in one of his poems.’ Recorded a cappella, the song showcases Redbone’s limber, rich alto.
For many of the songs, Redbone came up with the melodies by singing the poems out loud as she was reading; McEuen, who plays several instruments on the album, helped fine-tune the arrangements and brought top-notch Nashville musicians like bassist Byron House on board to record the album in March 2011. The process came together so easily—several songs were done on the first take—that McEuen believes the pair weren’t “anything but destined to do this.”
Integrating Blake’s words with Appalachian instruments and Native American traditional music was also a process that came naturally. “Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames” is the only song on which Redbone doesn’t perform lead vocals; instead, the poem is recited by Jonathan Spottiswoode over Native American rattles and backing vocalists performing a traditional Shawnee song. Since the poem’s closing lines find Blake proclaiming, “The Ohio shall wash his stains from me/I was born a slave but I go to be free,” Redbone cites Shawnee healing and cleansing ceremonies—as well as the Ohio River’s presence in Shawnee territory—as her inspiration for the song’s arrangement.
While some of the poems found on The Garden of Love address issues of love and nature, there are also works, including the title track, that reveal Blake’s social consciousness. His rejection of some elements of the era’s religious practices, “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” is set to a hand-clapping, tambourine-rattling, call-and-response arrangement that sounds straight out of a Sunday morning. “He was such a radical,” says Redbone. “There were a lot of things he really didn’t like about religion, so I thought there wasn’t a better way to do ‘I Rose Up’ than make a gospel song out of it.” It’s one of the highlights of the album, an organic, spiritual song whose lyrics, penned more than 200 years ago, remain powerful and relevant.
After the passing of her mother in September of 2011, Redbone wanted to postpone the release of her new album until the project had “the right energy behind it.” The Garden of Love finally came out just a few months ago. It’s a gorgeous mélange of sounds, influences, and textures that represents not only Redbone’s multicultural heritage, but also the numerous influences found in American folk and roots music. Asked if she’ll continue her roots music journey, Redbone is enthusiastic: “Absolutely. It’s a part of me. This music was such a natural connection to home. And I think the older people get, the more we get that call to come back home.” She might not bring Blake along for the ride, but “there’s more to come, for sure.”
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