Martha Redbone Roots Project transforms the words of William Blake into modern American music | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Martha Redbone Roots Project transforms the words of William Blake into modern American music 

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click to enlarge Martha Redbone

Martha Redbone

Fabrice Trombert

If you were looking for compelling source material for an album of 21st-century Americana, you might not start with poems written in England at the tail end of the 18th century. But the 2012 debut album by Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love—Songs of William Blake, sets the words of the English writer, artist, and visionary to arrangements that blend elements of Appalachian folk, gospel, soul, blues, and Native American music. Born in rural Kentucky, Redbone has a family tree that includes African-American, European, Cherokee, and Choctaw ancestors, and she grew up learning about the various musical traditions of her people. Though she’s found success in New York and London, she’s never left her roots behind; in the 2000s she mixed gospel and R&B with Native American influences on three releases, including 2004’s Skintalk, for which she won an Independent Music Award for best R&B album. She’s also led educational workshops for children on Native American reservations across the country and used her prominent platform to advocate for civil rights, nonviolence, and equitable treatment of indigenous people—her desire to create connection as well as to thread together past and present are part of what inspired her to make Garden of Love. Her honey-toned voice, the intimate production by John McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), and Blake’s evocative verses about love, nature, compassion, and liberation combine to make the songs feel timeless and universal—and they seem especially poignant in their yearning for freedom and happiness, now that engaging with the wider political world is so draining and disheartening.   v

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