Swamp Music Revisited: A New Take on William Blake

From the first chord, I knew I was going to enjoy Martha Redbone’sGarden of Love. Her vocal and musical interpretation of William Blake’s poetry is hauntingly beautiful. It’s swampy. It’s spiritual. It’s romantic ecology set to music.

My favorite aunt introduced me to Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth and William Blake when I was fifteen. I read and analyzed their poetry; I tapped my fingers to iambic pentameter. I wrote essays and sonnets. Reading their poetry probably influenced my passion for environmental science. I was born a poet but I grew to love ecology–partly born out of my love for William Blake and the Romantics.

The poetry of Blake is rich with nature imagery. Some of his poems deal with man’s relationship with nature, and specifically swamps and wetlands in a literal sense, but perhaps as metaphors for the human spirit. Like others of his time, Blake’s poetry called for action—to protect natural places, including wetlands, which he believed were vital to the human experience. Blake and his colleagues were the “eco-poetics” and they promoted the ideas of deep ecology, an interconnectivity among living things and the intrinsic value of nature. Nowadays analysts of this stage in the environmental movement refer to it as a genre of ecological criticism, or “eco-criticism,” in which the writers and thinkers of that time were motivated by environmentally-driven ethics and activism. For example, Blake’s line, “everything that lives, / Lives not alone, nor for itself ” and other verses pointed readers to the idea of economic values of nature (Hutchings, 2007). Today we call this eco-economics and talk about the functions, ecological services and value of wetlands. In Blake’s poetry, he used a very similar terminology in poems set in wetlands.

For Strange Wetlands, I surveyed a few examples of swamp rock in a previous post. But there is more to swamp music than rock and blues. Swamp-inspired music can be folksy, indie pop, gospel and acoustic. Martha Redbone, a southern songwriter, recently released a new album, Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. She sings the poems as Blake wrote them—but set to original music. The singer explains that she “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.’” I would add that Blake’s eco-poetics are also a relevant call to action for the nation’s wetlands. Given the timing of Redbone’s album release during the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, this swamp music may be part of a soundtrack to herald in a new dawning of clean water protections for streams, rivers and wetlands. Listen to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. Find her on Youtube.

I laid me down upon a bank
Where love lay sleeping
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping Weeping

Then I went to the heath & the wild,
To the thistles & thorns of the waste
And they told me how they were beguiled
Driven out & compelled to be chaste

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

-Garden of Love
William Blake

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