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Martha Redbone
Will Maupin
Martha Redbone

Gospel pass

Music | Martha Redbone and Mavis Staples sing truth with beauty and impunity

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

Political correctness has its downsides, but one upside is that historically oppressed nonwhites seem to have carte blanche to sing with impunity about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and thus provide sacred song with an ark in which to ride out the secularist flood.

Exhibit A among noteworthy recent examples of this felicitous double standard is The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake (Blackfeet Productions/CD Baby) by the Martha Redbone Roots Project. Had the album been sung in a Southern accent to country-music accompaniment, critics would no doubt find in Blake couplets such as “I am in God’s presence night and day, / And He never turns His face away” (“I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day”) and “He gives to us His joy / That our grief He may destroy” (“On Another’s Sorrow”) proof of the singer’s commitment to promulgating a culturally superior Eurocentric hegemony or something similarly inane.

But coming from Redbone, who traces her bloodlines to three Indian tribes and at least one African country, such material gets a pass—either because the ancestors of the oppressed singing the songs of their ancestors’ oppressors are providing long-overdue comeuppance or because the oppressed can hardly be expected to achieve overnight the enlightenment to see through religion and other superstitious nonsense. That the white male and Nitty Gitty Dirt Band alumnus John McEuen co-composed melodies and helmed the production console only goes to show how fitful progress can be.

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Whatever. At least this time what’s getting affirmed actually deserves affirmation. Unlike Allen Ginsberg, whose 1970 musical renditions of Blake poems reduced Blake to a shambolic hedonist, and William Bolcom, whose 2006 Grammy-winning efforts found him essentially throwing everything at the poems to see what would stick, Redbone takes, and for the most part leaves, Blake at face value, remaking herself in his image at least as much as she can’t help remaking him in hers.

What is her image? That of a euphoniously soulful songstress most comfortable emoting from within an acoustic—yea, even old-timey—instrumentation to which folk-festival attendees and Pentecostal and/or Baptist all-day diners on the ground could gladly lift their voices in song. And speaking of picnics, Redbone’s gorgeous, autoharp-enriched rendition of “The Fly” is just the humbling thing to keep one demographic from viewing another from the vantage point of anything like a high horse.

Exhibit B in the racial doublestandard sweepstakes is Mavis Staples’ One True Vine (ANTI), which, like her 2011 album You Are Not Alone, finds Staples working in sympathetic collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Together they sift soulful wheat from bluesy chaff and turn it into gospel gold.

Who, for instance, knew that Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain contained “Can You Get to That,” which cuts to the gospel quick by proclaiming, “Well, I read an old quotation in a book just yesterday / Said ‘Gonna reap just what you sow, / The debts you make you have to pay’”? Or that Tweedy had a gospel original like “Every Step” in him? Or that Nick Lowe had penned a song called “Far Celestial Shore,” the lyrics of which recall no one so much as, well, William Blake?

“Laughter too is everywhere,” writes Lowe of heaven. 

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