Blake's Poems, Reborn As Bluesy Folk Tunes, Burn Bright
The words of the English poet William Blake still resonate 185 years after his death. Blake, who was also a painter and printmaker, wrote the famous lines, "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night."
Blake called many of his poems "songs," and over the years, many composers have set them to music. "Jerusalem" was adapted by Sir Charles Hubert Parry a century after it was written, and became a staple hymn in Anglican churches. Benjamin Britten wrote an arrangement of Blake's "The Fly," to be sung by a baritone.
The latest release from singer Martha Redbone is a new take on Blake's poems, titled The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. With collaborators John McEuen and Aaron Whitby, she created new settings for 12 Blake songs.
Redbone spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about making the album and identifying connections between Blake's English roots and her own Appalachian ones.
On the origins of the project
"We had his book of poetry out, and the first song that jumped off the page was 'A Poison Tree.' Just the title sounded so naturally Appalachian, which is where my family is from. And the verse says, 'I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end.' To me, it was just almost as if the song had always existed in the words. As we read more and more of his poems, it just got more exciting."
On making a natural connection with Blake
"We studied him in high school, and I loved his work back then — so to rediscover Blake in such an intimate way, and also to discover how much his words fit the imagery of Appalachia, of Black Mountain and Clinch Mountain and the Great Smokies, where my family has been for hundreds and hundreds of years ... In a way I kind of imagined, what if my ancestor, who was English, came over and married my Cherokee-Shawnee great-great-grandma? What if these works just stayed in our family and we discovered them all these years later?"
On Blake's modern relevance
"There's a Lakota saying, 'Mitakuye Oyasin,' which means, 'We're all related.' I guess the older I get, I see that, of course, we are all related. Especially our country, the United States, is this huge melting pot and this really rich history. I wanted people to be reminded of the beauty of [Blake's] messages and the relevance that rings so true today — his sentiments of 'Mercy, Pity and Peace / Is the world's release.' "
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. And now, old lyrics, new music. The words of the English poet, William Blake, still resonate 185 years after his death. Blake, who was also a painter and print maker, wrote, "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night." His poem "Jerusalem" was set to music by Sir Charles Hubert Parry a century after it was written and it became a staple hymn in Anglican churches.
(SOUNDBITE OF HYMN, "JERUSALEM")
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) And did the countenance divine...
SIEGEL: And did the countenance divine, shine forth upon our clouded hills, and was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills. Blake called many of his poems, songs, and over the years composers have set them to music. This is how Benjamin Britten set Blake's song, "The Fly" to music to be sung by a baritone. In this case, baritone, Gerald Finley.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FLY")
GERALD FINLEY: (Singing) Little fly, little fly, thy summer's play, my thoughtless hand has brushed away.
SIEGEL: And now, here is a delightful surprise. A new album from Martha Redbone, with a new take on the songs of William Blake. Here's her version of "The Fly."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FLY")
MARTHA REDBONE: (Singing) Oh, little fly. Thy summer's play. My thoughtless hand has brushed away. Am not I a fly like thee? Or art not thou a man like me? For I dance and drink and sing, till some blind hand shall brush my wing.
SIEGEL: Martha Redbone's album is called "The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake." She and John McEuen and Aaron Whitby have created these new settings of 12 Blake songs. And she joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program. Terrific album.
REDBONE: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: And tell us, what led you to this project. Why William Blake?
REDBONE: I'm a lyricist and write lots of songs for people. And, you know, we had his book of poetry out and the first song that jumped off the page was "A Poison Tree." Just the title sounded so naturally Appalachian, which is where my family's from. And the verse says, you know, I was angry with my friend. I told my wrath, my wrath did end. And to me, it was just almost as if the song had always existed in the words.
SIEGEL: Yeah, the fit with Appalachia seems at many points to be a very natural one. On the other hand, you've got to do a lot of theeing and thouing in these songs. Art thou not a fly like me? You know, it must be a little awkward singing those lyrics.
REDBONE: Well, for us, you know, the church is a big part of mountain life. We always had the bible and the language in the bible is very similar, so to me it wasn't anything unusual.
SIEGEL: You did your theeing and thouing once a week.
REDBONE: That's right.
SIEGEL: Did you go back to listen to what other people had done with the Blake songs or go straight at it?
REDBONE: You know, I didn't at the time. I mean, I kind of went through all the poetry and looked at the imagery and things that spoke to me about the lay of the land and the church. And just things that reminded me of home. And then, once we had written like the bulk of the songs I said, I wonder if anybody's done this? And so, Alan Ginsberg had his collection of works and then there were a couple of other artists. But for me, I felt the messages in all the songs that we ended up setting music to were so relevant. I just wanted to do a whole album of his works.
SIEGEL: You know, you mentioned some of the songs that you went back and listened to. This is one, the composer Rodney Money did of the Blake song, "Garden of Love." And this is actually a recording of it by the Honors Women's Chorus of Apex High School in Apex, North Carolina. A little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GARDEN OF LOVE")
HONORS WOMEN'S CHORUS OF APEX HIGH SCHOOL: (Singing) I went to the garden of love and saw what I never had seen.
SIEGEL: It's a beautiful composition from a few years ago. I'd like people to hear, Martha Redbone, your singing of the title track from the album "Garden of Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GARDEN OF LOVE")
REDBONE: (Singing) And I went to the heath and the wild, to the thistles and thorns of the waste. And they told me how they were beguiled, driven out and compelled to be chaste. I went to the garden of love and saw what I never had seen.
SIEGEL: I could believe that William Blake came from Kentucky or West Virginia hearing that tune.
REDBONE: The "Garden of Love" to me just sounded swampy, you know. And it's about sexual repression. In this case, you know, because of the church. And we ended up finding two stanzas from his notes that we used as a setup to the introduction to this about someone who's laying on a dank river bank, you know, where love lay sleeping, you know.
(Singing) I lay me down upon a bank when love lay sleeping. I heard among the rushes dank, weeping, weeping.
And I thought that was a great setup for the crying with frustration. And then I went to this "Garden of Love" and then saw all this imagery and for me, it's memories of my grandma on her front porch.
SIEGEL: And Blake was kind of a libertine character for his day.
SIEGEL: Early 19th century. Did you become more of a Blake fan through all of this?
REDBONE: Absolutely. You know, we studied him in high school. I loved his work back then. So to rediscover Blake in such an intimate way and also to discover how much his words fit the imagery of Black Mountain and Clinch Mountain and the Great Smokies, where my family's been for hundreds and hundreds of years, this connection to me just felt so natural. And I wanted people to be reminded of the beauty of his messages and the relevance. It rings so true today, you know, his sentiments of mercy, pity and peace, you know, is the world's release in the song "I Heard An Angel Singing." And to me, that just sounded like a hymn. So I did that as a hymn.
SIEGEL: Well, Martha Redbone, thank you very much for talking with us about the new album "The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake."
REDBONE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD AN ANGEL")
REDBONE: (Singing) I heard a devil curse over the heath and the ferns. Mercy could be no more if there was nobody poor. And pity no more could be. If all were as happy as we. At his curse the sun went down. And the heavens gave a frown.
SIEGEL: You can hear tracks from Martha Redbone's new album at npr.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.