By Kevin Zimmerman
Martha Redbone Has Something To Say
A funny thing happened to Martha Redbone on the way to producing a follow-up to her acclaimed Skintalk: An encounter with William Blake.
“I’d studied Blake in high school, and was going through one of his books at home,” the Brooklyn native recalls. “The messages in his poems are still relevant today – he was a spiritualist who questioned organized religion, and offered messages of mercy, pity, peace and compassion for humanity.” Given that one of Blake’s most famous collections is entitled Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Redbone says, “It felt like they were intended to be songs in the first place.”
The result, Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake, takes as its foundation Redbone’s trademark blend of R&B, blues, and Appalachian folk music, along with the Native American sensibility she inherited from her mother; Redbone’s family includes Cherokee and Choctaw as well as African-American forebears.
“Growing up in Appalachia and Brooklyn, I heard all these sounds and stories that inspired me to develop my own storytelling in song,” she says. “I was probably the only 11-year-old in Crown Heights who knew who Conway Twitty was!”
Heritage plays a large part in Redbone’s life and career. “I grew up at a time when people didn’t think Indians really existed anymore,” she says. “And not just in the US – I’ve traveled all through Europe, to South Africa, to Senegal, and people didn’t really know that Indians are still alive. Subconsciously I felt a sense of responsibility that we are still here, and thriving.”
Not that she’s taken an obtrusive approach: “I try to do these things subliminally, to preserve our culture without ramming it down everyone’s throat.”
Her social consciousness is evident in the number of causes she’s allied herself with. She regularly gives talks on indigenous rights, and holds an annual Traditional Music Workshop within the United Houma Nation’s Cultural Enrichment Summer Camp program. She’s also involved with anti-hunger/anti-povery organization WhyHunger as well as serving as the indigenous affairs consultant and creative advisor to the Man Up Campaign, a new global youth movement to eradicate violence against women and girls.
“If you’re truly socially conscious, then once you’re aware of a need for something, you’re likely to get involved and help spread the word,” she says. “I liken what’s going on now to what was happening with the anti-litter movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It took 20 years for people to realize that littering was wrong, and the issues I’m working on now could take just as long. But they will begin to change.”
The prolific artist is already gathering ideas for her next album, which will “probably be a roots record with a little more blues in it. It’ll have a strong band vibe.” And don’t be surprised if a certain Romantic English poet makes a reappearance. “We did about 20 songs based on Blake, and recorded 12 of them,” Redbone says. “There’s probably enough there for a great half-hour album, maybe an EP before we do a full album.”