Filed Under:

Blake's Poems, Reborn As Bluesy Folk Tunes, Burn Bright

Play associated audio

The words of the English poet William Blake still resonate 185 years after his death. Blake, who was also a painter and printmaker, wrote the famous lines, "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night."

Blake called many of his poems "songs," and over the years, many composers have set them to music. "Jerusalem" was adapted by Sir Charles Hubert Parry a century after it was written, and became a staple hymn in Anglican churches. Benjamin Britten wrote an arrangement of Blake's "The Fly," to be sung by a baritone.

The latest release from singer Martha Redbone is a new take on Blake's poems, titled The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. With collaborators John McEuen and Aaron Whitby, she created new settings for 12 Blake songs.

Redbone spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about making the album and identifying connections between Blake's English roots and her own Appalachian ones.


Interview Highlights

On the origins of the project

"We had his book of poetry out, and the first song that jumped off the page was 'A Poison Tree.' Just the title sounded so naturally Appalachian, which is where my family is from. And the verse says, 'I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end.' To me, it was just almost as if the song had always existed in the words. As we read more and more of his poems, it just got more exciting."

On making a natural connection with Blake

"We studied him in high school, and I loved his work back then — so to rediscover Blake in such an intimate way, and also to discover how much his words fit the imagery of Appalachia, of Black Mountain and Clinch Mountain and the Great Smokies, where my family has been for hundreds and hundreds of years ... In a way I kind of imagined, what if my ancestor, who was English, came over and married my Cherokee-Shawnee great-great-grandma? What if these works just stayed in our family and we discovered them all these years later?"

On Blake's modern relevance

"There's a Lakota saying, 'Mitakuye Oyasin,' which means, 'We're all related.' I guess the older I get, I see that, of course, we are all related. Especially our country, the United States, is this huge melting pot and this really rich history. I wanted people to be reminded of the beauty of [Blake's] messages and the relevance that rings so true today — his sentiments of 'Mercy, Pity and Peace / Is the world's release.' "

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Check Out This 1999 Profile Of The Late, Great Juan Gabriel

Juan Gabriel stayed true to his roots, even when it wasn't easy. This LA Times piece takes a look at why that was.
NPR

Northeast Farmers Grapple With Worst Drought In More Than A Decade

This year, many fields are bone dry — and that has many farmers in the region thinking about how to manage their land, their animals and the water that is there.
WAMU 88.5

State Taxes, School Budgets And The Quality Of Public Education

Budget cutbacks have made it impossible for many states to finance their public schools. But some have bucked the trend by increasing taxes and earmarking those funds for education. Taxes, spending and the quality of public education.

NPR

Scientists Looking For Alien Life Investigate 'Interesting' Signal From Space

Russian astronomers detected an unusual radio signal last year. The SETI Institute says it's too soon to say whether the signal came from intelligent life-forms — but researchers are checking it out.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.