Album perfectly interprets ‘songs’ of Blake

art martharedboneApart from the fact that this is a remarkable recording, in terms of Martha Redbone’s liquid vocals and the harmonious blend of John McEuen’s instruments (banjo, guitar, dubro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and dulcimer), the combining of music with William Blake’s “songs” is an amazing achievement.

It is as though this 18th century poet’s work has been quietly waiting for Redbone. After all, Blake always called his poems “songs,” suggesting that they were meant to be sung. Here they are then. After more than two centuries, finally, exquisitely complete.

Without altering a single line, Redbone transforms Blake’s mystical but simple lyrics into songs that shimmer. Each poem is interpreted by being clothed in an appropriate melody. For example, consider Blake’s poem, “The Poisoned Tree” which contains one of the poet’s favorite themes: The bitter consequences of suppressed desire: I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe; I told it not, my wrath did grow.

Sung in a cappella, Redbone’s crystalline voice gives this poem a daunting and cautionary quality reminiscent of traditional Appalachian hymns that were sung without musically accompaniment.

Again, in “The Garden of Love,” Blake defines the shameful consequences of suppress and denial. This poem suggests that religion is sometimes a destructive force: And the gates of this Chapel were shut. And Thou shalt not, writ over the door. Redbone give this poem a plaintive quality that laments the loss of a love that is unencumbered by rules and strictures: And I saw it was filled with graves, And tombstones where flowers should be: And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

Redbone seems to have an instinctive awareness of Blake’s subtle shifts in emotions. Some of the poems are given as chants, while others acquire that “high lonesome” sound that we associate with traditional mountain ballads. Some of the poems are fittingly interpreted as lullabies: Sleep sleep Beauty bright, Dreaming o’er the joys of night, Sleep Sleep: in thy sleep, Little sorrows sit and weep.

“How Sweet I Roamed” sounds like an old English ballad that addresses the destructive results of a love that possesses and confines: He caught me in his silken net, And shut me in his golden cage. He loves to sit and hear me sing, Then, laughing sports and plays with me; Then stretches out my golden wing, And mocks my loss of liberty.

Redbone runs the musical gamut from dirge and lament to the defiant shout in “Why should I Care for the Men of Thames” given by Jonathan Spottswoode. Throughout all of these songs, we hear faint echos of the forces that have shaped Martha Redbone: American Indian, African American, traditional folk music and, yes, a touch of Nina Simone. The variety of musical instruments on this recording are wonderfully diverse and, like Martha Redbone, original and enchanting.

(Gary Carden can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)



“The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake” by Martha Redbone Roots Project. To listen and purchase, visit

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