REVIEW: From Harlan County, Kentucky to Brooklyn: Martha Redbone raises the roof at National Sawdust

The spirit of Jean Ritchie – recently celebrated with a Square Roots concert at London’s Green Note  with Dan Evans and Virginia Thorn and in Albany, New York with Peter Pickow, Susan Trump and David Massengill – hovered benevolently over another event this week: a concert by Martha Redbone at National Sawdust, opened six months ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s hottest locale. One of three evenings curated by Redbone but the only one at which she actually performed, it featured the singer’s settings of William Blake inspired by the music of her Appalachain heritage in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Martha RedboneFeaturing Aaron Whitby on keyboards, John Caban on guitar, Charlie Burnham on fiddle, Fred Cash on acoustic bass, and Tony Mason on drums, the concert raised the roof, Redbone exhorting the audience to ‘make this our church’. Evoking the life lived by her Cherokee forebears in Black Mountain, where strip mining disfigured the landscape and poisoned the water, she offered rousing and powerful performances not only of the Blake settings (written with Whitby and recorded as The Garden of Love) but also by pioneering Carolina-born bluegrass pioneer Ola Belle Reed (‘Undone in Sorrow’), Peter La Farge (‘Drums’) and Johnny Cash (a remarkable reworking of ‘Ring of Fire’).

Martha RedboneRedbone talked passionately about the fate of the Native Americans, taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools  established by the American government in the 19th and 20th centuries to ‘civilise and christianise’ the young charges – ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ was the grim philosophy. La Farge, a Cherokee like Redbone, was a contemporary of Bob Dylan in 1960s Greenwich Village and wrote songs on Native American issues. He died young in 1965 and in 2010 the Smithsonian issued a tribute album, Rare Breed, on which Redbone featured.

The movement for Native American rights and recognition grew out of the black civil rights movement so it was fitting that Redbone closed the concert with a performance of ‘Keep Your Eyes On the Prize’, singer and audience engaging in exhilarating call and response.

Martha Redbone with (left to right) Aarton Whitby, Charlie Burnham, Tony Mason, Fred Cash and John Caban
Martha Redbone with (left to right) Aarton Whitby, Charlie Burnham, Tony Mason, Fred Cash and John Caban

*Bone Hill, described by Redbone as ‘the true account of my ancestors, of post-slavery, and people of colour working in the coal mines of Appalachia amid the laws of Jim Crow and our survival as the original people of that land as the world changes around us through the generations’, is at Lincoln Center NYC on 28 April.

Bone Hill – The Concert: Music and lyrics by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby; written by Martha Redbone, Roberta Uno, and Aaron Whitby, directed by Roberta Uno.