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An American Original Meets English Romantic Poet

The music of Martha Redbone, who performs May 1, 2014, at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., defies the usual categories. (Courtesy photograph)

The music of Martha Redbone, who performs May 1, 2014, at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., defies the usual categories. (Courtesy photograph)

When the singer Martha Redbone began to record her most recent album, The Garden of Love, which sets the poems of William Blake to music, her benchmark of artistic success was whether it evoked her maternal great-grandmother singing on her porch in Kentucky. “That’s what I wanted it to sound like,” Redbone said.

Redbone brings a performance of The Garden of Love with her band The Martha Redbone Roots Project to the Hopkins Center on Thursday, May 1. Of Cherokee, Choctaw and African-American heritage, Redbone was raised in both the Virginia Piedmont and in Harlan County, Ky., the heart of coal mining country. Growing up she listened to myriad musical genres which included bluegrass, folk, soul, R&B, jazz and blues, each with its own distinctive cadences and rhythms.

Although Redbone has always been a highly regarded performer, The Garden of Love has brought her a new wave of critical and popular attention.

Veteran music critic Robert Christgau, formerly of the Village Voice, put the album on his best of list for 2013, calling it a “major find.” The New Yorker described it as a “brilliant collision of cultures” in which “the mystical, humanistic words of the eighteenth-century English poet are fused with the melodies, drones, and rhythms of the Appalachian string-band music that Redbone absorbed as a child.” It has been nominated as one of the best concept albums of 2013 by the Independent Music Awards.

The project came about when Redbone and her husband and musical collaborator Aaron Whitby started working with producer John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on what was going to be an album of mountain music. They’d gotten together some songs but in a moment of inspiration Whitby found a William Blake anthology on one of their bookshelves.

He grabbed it from the shelf and it opened immediately to Blake’s poem A Poison Tree. They both agreed that not only would it make a “cool song,” but that its portrait of friends and foes and the fine line between, reminded them of the tightly knit mountain communities in Appalachia. Redbone began improvising melodies and singing; one Blake poem led to another, and then another.

“We started searching through all the poems,” Redbone said. They narrowed them down to about 25, and then narrowed those down further. “And then we called John,” she said, and told him, “You know this thing we’re working on together? Forget all that.”

So was born The Garden of Love, a song cycle, with musical arrangements by McEuen, that is a paean to nature and a meditation on life from birth to death. It has the kind of eerie, shiver-inducing sound and tender ruminativeness that mark an artist working with material she was always meant to explore.

The final recording mixes took place during the same period that saw the death of a beloved aunt, and then, four weeks later, the death of Redbone’s mother. “It was a bittersweet thing. To me it was like the songs that I’d subconsciously chosen came to be, if you know what I mean,” she said.

That she also gave birth to a son five years ago inevitably transformed her perspective of what matters, and what doesn’t. “You’re looking at life through them, which is what also inspired me to make this music.”

When she and Whitby researched whether any other musicians had done something similar, they were surprised to find that, no, it hadn’t been done to death. The poet Allen Ginsberg had recorded a performance of himself reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, as had the singer Greg Brown, but other than those recordings were few and far between.

It wasn’t a stretch to shape music around Blake’s poems. “To me they feel like they’d always been songs,” Redbone said.

Blake, who worked from the 1770s until his death in 1827, was a unique genius, both poet and artist, an advocate of racial and gender equality, deeply spiritual but opposed to organized religion. “He was really ahead of his time in his thinking,” Redbone said; and she drew on the travails of her Cherokee, Choctaw and African-American ancestors to reinterpret Blake’s philosophy of what it means to be a free person of free will.

Although Redbone has recorded soul and R&B albums, The Garden of Love, with its use of banjo, dobro, mandolin, accordion and dulcimers, and its acoustic sound has been lumped in to the category known as Americana, or roots music.

Redbone is impatient with the increasingly confined slots into which the music industry shoves artists. “I know there are people who get paid to come up with all these titles to pigeonhole us. ... In the ’50s and ’60s, whether you were Ray Charles or Elvis Presley or Aretha, they did music all across the board, because it was the artist you loved and wanted to hear, it was their voice and sound,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn.

Her point is that, although “roots” and “Americana” have been used as marketing tools to sell anything that sounds vaguely acoustic and old-timey bluegrass, “everything is Americana.” The mixture of all the musical traditions that have flowed into this country from all over the world, and the way disparate cultures draw on each other for influence, has bred a national music of infinite variety. Why try to make that smaller than it is?

The response to The Garden of Love has been far beyond what Redbone anticipated, she said. “When we did it... we didn’t expect anyone to hear it, let alone like it.” Word of the album flashed from one person to the next, and it’s been heard on WNYC radio in New York and NPR’s All Things Considered, among other venues.

To have the record industry take a musician seriously in this day and age, Redbone said, the music isn’t enough. You have to have a web page, a Facebook page and a Twitter handle, just for starters. How many “followers” a musician has “are the numbers that help artists get distribution,” she said.

“Just when us oldies get used to Facebook,” Redbone joked, “My God, there’s something else I have to put my personal information on.”

But word of mouth has followed The Garden of Love from performance to performance, which is, of course, immensely gratifying to Redbone. “To actually have people who get it and support it and really believe in you is a really great affirmation to have every once in a while,” she said.

For tickets and information, call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to hop.dartmouth.edu. For information on Martha Redbone, go to martharedbone.com.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.