Thursday, September 12, 2013

William Blake in song, via Martha Redbone and Allen Ginsberg

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
Weeping Weeping

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.


  1. I suppose Blake became more popular in the 20th century. There are fine settings by Krenek, Hindemith, Britten, Alec Wilder, Virgil Thomson, William Bolcom, and many others. And let's not forget Hubert Parry: "Jerusalem" really is a stirring tune.

    1. "And let's not forget Hubert Parry --" sometimes I wonder how Blake would have reacted if he had been made aware that people would one day regard And Did Those Feet as the legitimate counterpoint to a haka. Time acting like a sort of quilt around them, bringing the patterns together.

    2. I'm not sure what Parry would have thought of that, either. He was a fairly progressive chap, with Darwinian and feminist leanings; "Jerusalem" was originally taken up by the suffragettes.

  2. Yes, that is a good point. I omitted the sequel. In the 20th century, there are lots of classical settings of Blake,. Of course, in the 20th century there are a lot more good British (and American) composers.

  3. Ginsberg's versions would probably be more along the line of Blake's tastes, I say for no reason. I met Ginsberg at a party in the early 80s, after he'd worked with the Clash. In fact, I only knew of him via the Clash (I'd heard of "Howl" but had read nothing beyond the first line, of course). He was teaching at the Naropa Institute at the time. He seemed like a nice guy; he sat on the end of the couch and smiled at all the hippies. I have no idea why I'm telling you this.

    I like the weirdness of Blake. I have an edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience that I borrowed from someone who borrowed it from Henry Rollins when he was staying at her house during a speaking tour. It's a strange world. Anyway, I like what Redbone is doing to the texts.

  4. Ginsberg certainly thought so.

    I guess I saw - did not really meet but saw - Ginsberg once, too at a kind of Beat writer reunion book signing. I was more interested in Burroughs at the time, and had him sign a book. But Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were right there, although I do not really remember even seeing them.

    Your story is better. You should go to a Henry Rollins show and return his book. No, that was a joke, don't do that.

  5. "Haka," I had to look that one up. Good one.

    My imaginative correspondence with Blake is limited. Funny, there are other writers where I will happily and glibly say he would have thought this and hated that. Not Blake, though. Well, I am sure he would have been happy to help out the suffragettes.

    1. I don't follow the rugby as a game, but I'll stop to watch the pre-game singing. Thousands of people in beanies rolling out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the big men going pink because they're nearly crying, and then the team goes on and wins thirty to three. I have no idea what Blake would have liked or hated -- I usually imagine him singing himself, since they say he sang -- but how would anybody respond if they knew that a far-off thing (whatever it was) would somehow be brought into cohabitation with your own very-close thing?

      I was reading De Quincey last night and he was getting starry-eyed at the thought of speed facilitating collusion: wonderful fact, he says: the mail can get from Edinburgh to London in less than several days.

      "Time, therefore, that ancient enemy of man and his frail purposes, how potent an ally has it become in combination with great mechanic changes! Many an imperfect hemisphere of thought, action, desire, that could not heretofore unite with its corresponding hemisphere, because separated by ten or fourteen days of suspense, now moves electrically to its integration, hurries to its complement, realizes its orbicular perfection, spherical completion, through that simple series of improvements which to man have given the wings and talaria of Gods, for the heralds have dimly suggested a future rivalship with the velocities of light, and even now have inaugurated a race between the child of mortality and the North Wind."

    2. (from Increased Possibilities of Sympathy in the Present Age, The Posthumous Works of Thomas De Quincey, Vol. 1)

  6. Amateur Reader's brotherSeptember 15, 2013 at 7:20 AM

    19th century British classical music really is a disaster. I wanted to blame it on the Pre-Raphaelites, but that only accounts for half of the century. 100 years of, well, whatever that was. I feel like I have to cleanse myself with Martha Redbone.

  7. Much of it was Handel's fault. It took Brits a while to kick the oratorio habit. There are a few bright spots: Field, Delius. But no eccentrics to match the poets, for some reason.

  8. De Quincey is as wild as Swinburne. "wings and talaria," you don't say. We have a separate word for winged sandals." That is amazing.

    Handel protests "I was long dead!" It is curious how such a vital form can be overshadowed by a single figure or shrivel up creatively, like the English theater did at the same time. Curious, too, that the first creative revival of both was in the operetta. But this is one of the mysteries of creativity, why Sullivan is brilliant, maybe unsurpassed, in one setting and ordinary in others.

  9. The Fugs set a couple of Blake poems to music in the mid-60's. I particularly remember a camp-counrty version of How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field. (My name is Don and my e-mail is

  10. Ah, I even know that one, from their first album. But I had never realized it was Blake. I believe Tuli sings on that Ginsberg album - his voice is distinctive - but he was not in the credit list I found.

    Thanks for the pointer.