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Vol. 49 no. 1: Summer 2015

Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake

  • Steve Newman
2 June 2015
02 Jun. 2015


Like so many others, I have Allen Ginsberg to thank for introducing me to the idea that Songs of Innocence and of Experience are poems meant to be sung. When I was a sophomore, he visited my university and, after performing many of his own poems, he launched into a rendition of “Nurse’s Song” (Innocence). Accompanying himself on the harmonium, he spoke-sung the nurse’s part, then climbed into a thready falsetto for the children’s voices, and concluded with a rousing “And all the hills ecchoéd” that he repeated for what must have been five minutes, drawing the crowd into chanting it, trailing off at the end into a near-silent prayer. Afterwards, I mustered the courage to ask him about singing Blake, and he confirmed that Blake had in fact sung the Songs, though no record of the arrangements survives.

Over the years, I have heard many other takes on the Songs, from Benjamin Britten’s intense art songs to the industrial calypso Cockney (I think that accurately describes it) of Jah Wobble’s “Tyger Tyger.” The breadth of styles attests to the vitality and accessibility of the verse and the vision behind it. Given Blake’s stress on the individual’s right to interpretation, it would seem un-Blakean to insist that one style truly captures Blake and to rule the others out of court. But I don’t think it’s invidious to say that I now have the Martha Redbone Roots Project’s deep and powerful The Garden of Love to thank for reintroducing me to Blake’s lyrics as songs to be belted out, crooned, and ruminated upon.