When I read Christina Rossetti or her lyrical peers, I feel regret that the nineteenth century was such a poor one for English composers. The poets held up their end, supplying plenty of good material for English lieder, but no English equivalent of Debussy or Wolf appeared to take up the challenge.
The English folk tradition remained strong, though. If only I enjoyed it more. I have been greatly enjoying an updated offshoot, The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake (2012) by the Martha Redbone Roots Project. Redbone skillfully selected and adapted a set of Blake poems, a mix of the Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and some miscellaneous songs that resembled the Appalachian songs of her childhood, no longer exactly English but of course from the same source.
The entire album is available on Bandcamp. Please try “A Dream” or “The Poison Tree” if you want to hear just one.
Redbone is herself part Native-American, part African-American, and part folkie-American. Her settings blend the different sides of her background, although I really only hear the Native American elements in the background of “A Dream.” So two songs are a cappella, “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day” becomes a spiritual (to an old tune, although I can’t identify it), some have more of an English folk flavor, while others are more American. Listeners with a strong allergy to folk will not be so happy, I guess. My allergy is mild, and I will always vote for less autoharp, but there is not so much of that here.
Redbone’s singing is the highlight of the album, but she did an outstanding job of choosing texts. It all sounds so natural. For example, this is Redbone’s “The Garden of Love”:
I laid me down upon a bank
Where love lay sleeping
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath & the wild
To the thistles & thorns of the waste
And they told me how they were beguild
Driven out & compeld to be chaste
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
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.
William Blake’s poem of the same title does not begin until the third stanza. The first two stanzas are from an entirely different Blake poem that now feels like it should be part of “Garden of Love.” Maybe it once was. I do not know the history of the text. Perhaps Redbone intuited (or researched) Blake’s edits.
For contrast, tryout Allen Ginsberg Sings William Blake (1970), available at UbuWeb, a run at Blake from an entirely different direction. Ginsberg wanted to capture or create the Dionysian Blake. Fauns dancing in the forest glade in the moonlight is the idea. Primeval musical chaos. The musicians (aside from creaky Ginsberg) are pros – Bob Dorough, Don Cherry, Elvin Jones! – so the cacophony is intentional. I will point to “Laughing Song” as one that gets especially close to the ecstatic state that was Ginsberg’s goal.
Both albums are legitimate, insightful interpretations of William Blake. Redbone’s is a lot less likely to clear the room, more likely to be played for pleasure.
The scan of "The Garden of Love" is from Wiki.