FAME Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake
Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake

The Garden of Love:
Songs of William Blake

Martha Redbone Roots Project

Blackfeet Productions - 93001

Available from CD Baby.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

I've beheld first-hand and up close many of the original masterpieces of graphic art in my life: Picasso's 'Guernica', Klee's 'Twittering Machine', Dali's 'Hallucinogenic Toreador', and so on, but I never expected the luminous encounter that was inevitable when, at the San Marino Museum in California, I was able to gaze upon one of his own etchings that William Blake had hand-colored in an old book laid under glass. I forget the tome's title and the name of the illo because I was enraptured and paid no attention to such things as words. I couldn't, all that mattered was the moment, everything else was irrelevant. The page was literally glowing, and one could feel the spirit of the long-departed mystic living on, a shard of his essence captured in that small beautiful piece. I was in fact so stunned that the guard noticed my beatific estate and allowed me to set up a tripod and take a slide of the page, something only rarely done in such places.

I've never forgotten that event engraved indelibly in memory and have always enjoyed the works putting the legendary aesthete's poetry into musical presentations, starting with David Axelrod's Song of Innocence (1968) and Songs of Experience (1969) then progressing forward to Jon Anderson & Alan White's superb take on Spring—Song of Innocence (on Alan's Ramshackled LP) and so on. Thus, when FAME's Big Dave, in his synopsis for the list of CDs for crits to pick from, declared that Martha Redbone's new CD was the best he'd ever heard in the vein, I was intrigued and nabbed it for review. Because of my affection for anything Blake-ian, while I won't go quite as far as Dave, I readily admit Ms. Redbone has crafted the venture in an entirely new direction and can rest on laurels that she has equaled all past resuscitations. Her The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake is audacious, as earthy as the famed Bill and his beloved wife (didja know they used to entertain guests in the nude—proper, chaste, and graceful in composure—in order to reflect the perfection of God's manufacture of the human body?), and I can well see what Dave perceived, as Redbone imbues her Project with the same proletarian/lumpenproletarian sentiments Dickens, born 15 years before Blake's death, held, and there's a sublime element here that will strike listeners speechless.

I can say with confidence that Blake would've been enthralled to have held court to Martha's heartfelt refrains amid her band's beautifully rural "orchestrations" (not symphonic as such but as clarity-ridden as a chamber ensemble, not just sympathetic but pastorally panoramic). On Another's Sorrow is particularly dramatic in its own decorous way, lamentive, empathetic, rending itself in the world's sorrows. A Dream waxes more ethereal and ambient, atmospheric and almost ghostly in its effects, my favorite song of the CD for its delicacy and rising spirit in refrain, Lonnie Harrington inserting a haunting Seminole chant. John McEuen & Dave Hoffner executed a spotless job in producing the entire disc while the recording work of Hoffner, Nick Sevilla, and Aaron Whitby is exquisite, not layered as one might expect but wondrously holistic, a miniature world.

Redbone's voice is here gospelly serious and joyous, there whispery and filigree gentle, elsewhere exuberant, gamboling in the fields and meadows Blake so loved, though she's transplanted the English acreage to American plains and bayous. Nor does she miss the tones of the alternatingly genteel and wrenching plaints Blake indited, his constant métier. Martha closes the cycle with the Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright lullabye, and that one poem in its mere 109 words perhaps best illustrates among all these why the divinely odd Blake is treasured 186 years after his death: it contains spheres of meaning that will never be completely unraveled because the multiple artist—believe it or not, unrecognized in his own time, in fact considered mad by his contemporaries, but now recognized as indispensible in world poetry and graphic art—was operating from a plane of existence we call enlightened, an adjective most of us can bestow only from a distance, hardly knowing what we speak of but gratified to catch the glimpse. Martha Redbone, though, had Bill whisper in her ear, and she got it. "Never mind all the pomp and heavenly fields," he said, "because it's all right here on Earth, now; show them that. The only difference is in the knowing, in understanding what makes pain and what love makes. Make them know."

And she has.

Track List:

  • The Garden of Love
  • Hear the Voice of the Bard
  • How Sweet I Roamed
  • On Anothers Sorrow
  • A Dream
  • I Heard an Angel Singing
  • I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day
  • A Poison Tree
  • The Echoing Green
  • The Fly
  • Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames
  • Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright
All lyrics are the the exact words of William Blake,
all music written by Redbone / Whitby / McEuen.

Edited by: David N. Pyles

Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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