What do you get when you mix a Cherokee-Choctaw mother, a gospel-singing black father, youth spent in the coal country of Kentucky, “gritty” teenage years in Brooklyn, New York, and a band of blues and jazz musicians? You get the Martha Redbone Roots Project.
Redbone describes her music as a “blend of Native American elements, funk, folk, country gospel, stomp chants and the high lonesome of a front-porch Sunday pickin’”.
Redbone’s “The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake” will find fertile ground in the hills of East Tennessee on Thursday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the D.P. Culp University Center’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium at East Tennessee State University. The ETSU Old Time Ramblers will open the show.
In “The Garden,” Redbone interweaves the music of her mountain childhood with a collection of the poems of 18th century British poet, painter and printmaker William Blake. Her partner, Aaron Whitby, an Englishman, suggested she set “one or two of his poems to music,” Redbone recalls. Her first cut was 150 poems.
She then narrowed it to a couple dozen poems that struck chords, reminding her of her Harlan, Kentucky, home and the mountains and pastures where she grew up with her grandparents – and the melodies just tumbled out. “I Heard an Angel Singing,” “How Sweet I Roamed,” “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” “The Echoing Green,” “Hear the Voice of the Bard” and seven more songs based on Blake’s vivid verbiage sprang up in the “garden.”
“It was something that was meant to happen,” Redbone says. “It was almost like divine inspiration because it didn’t take a lot of thought. The melodies literally came out as soon as I read these poems.”
Redbone and Whitby, who had been playing in a rhythm and blues band, took the songs to friend John McEuen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder and Grammy® winner, who made the recordings for her 2012 album.
“Music is always in the air in Appalachia,” Redbone says. “I wanted to capture the sound that I remember from my childhood. In a way, every time I sing this music it’s my way of honoring all our family.”
The process inspired Redbone to turn the record project into a larger endeavor she calls the Martha Redbone Roots Project.
“Many people, especially in New York City, don’t know anything about Appalachia,” she says. “They just call all the people from there ‘country’ or ‘hillbillies.’ They know nothing about the beauty of our culture in the hills. So, I thought, ‘This is a wonderful time to educate as well as inspire people musically, show them a different side of what Appalachia is about.’ Part of the idea of folk music, when people say folk, the key word is folk, meaning ‘all people.’ Everyone who came to those hills brought the music of their culture.”
Honoring native cultures, educating and communicating through stories and music are true missions for Redbone, who reaches out to diverse communities, celebrating her and others’ roots – in workshops, performances for young audiences and other outreach activities.
Her upbringing with a Cherokee/Shawnee/Choctaw mother and grandmother also inspire her. That, too, she points out, is part of her Appalachian heritage. “People forget that all those mountains – Black Mountain, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smokies, Clinch Mountain – all of those were original Cherokee territory,” she says. “It’s amazing how today people are not aware of that.”
Redbone was a 2015-16 Fellow of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and is recognized as an example of Contemporary Native American music in the Permanent Library Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
“Martha is very much engaged in Native American communities,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “She has performed and presented several times at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and she often works to help teach people native languages, Cherokee and Choctaw in particular.
“She is doing things on so many different levels. That’s why she calls it a ‘Roots Project’ – a lot of different disciplines are coming into play, simultaneously.”
Whether she’s giving a workshop, singing some high lonesome or gospel or writing a new song or musical, Redbone says she’s grateful. “I am fortunate to travel with my husband and our son, as well as the band, so in a way I feel like wherever we are, we’re with our family,” she says. “When I’m up on stage, I’m up there with my husband, the music director, so it just feels like we’re bringing people into our little world, into our living room in a way and I feel a lot of comfort in that.
It should be the same for the Nov. 30 audience in the East Tennessee mountains, she adds. “We try to take you to church and bring you back home again with a cup of hot cocoa. That’s what we try to do, try to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.”
For more information about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or to purchase tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346. For more on Redbone, visit https://sroartists.com/artists/martharedbone.