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Martha Redbone uses music to educate audiences of all ages about cultural history

Musician Martha Redbone guides students through a call-and-response song at Aspen Country Day School
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
Musician Martha Redbone guides students through a call-and-response version of “40 Wheels" at Aspen Country Day School on April 21. The original song is included in “Bone Hill: The Concert,” a show that explores four generations of family roots, oppression and resilience in the hills of coal-mining Appalachia.

On a wintery Friday morning at the Aspen Country Day School, singing students packed the Lower School Commons for an interactive assembly with musician Martha Redbone.

In the first 20 minutes, Redbone had already taught the kids traditional Native American chants and playful dances.

But the next song, an original Redbone wrote with her husband Aaron Whitby, had a much more somber tone: “40 Wheels” is about the Trail of Tears, and the brutal forced displacement of nearly 100,000 Native Americans in the Southeast in the 1800s; routes stretched across portions nine states and thousands died in the process.

It’s heavy history, but Redbone believes music and dance can communicate it effectively to young audiences without overwhelming the,

“You can tell difficult stories and difficult truths to little kids in a gentle way, and still not hide things,” Redbone said in an interview after the program.

The music method works with more mature listeners, too. Later Friday night, a grown-up audience at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen gave Redbone and her band a standing ovation for their performance of “Bone Hill: The Concert.”

The show includes “40 Wheels” and about a dozen other numbers, plus theatrical storytelling inspired by Redbone’s Black and Native American heritage. She considers herself “lucky” that she tells stories through song, because “everyone responds to music,” she said.

“These are things that tap into an emotion inside that we may not be able to explain,” Redbone said.

Redbone developed “Bone Hill” with Whitby, who is her partner in both life and creative collaboration.

The show highlights songs that range from Native American lullabies to waltzes, jazzy numbers to rock and roll jams. Throughout the story, told through four generations of Redbone’s family history in the hills of coal-mining Appalachia, music about love and loss is tinged by a legacy of racial oppression in America.

“It talks about how we continue to hold on to who we are, despite all the laws and all kinds of things that come in to try to erase us,” Redbone said. “And it's about — basically, it's about resilience.”

Redbone said “Bone Hill” allows her to preserve her cultural history while educating audiences about what she calls “genocide on paper.” The show explores the generational impacts of the American Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, cultural erasure, segregation and racism and Civil Rights-era conflict — but it remains determined to also honor the strength and joy of Redbone’s cultural roots.

“I felt it was my responsibility to not participate in the genocide of my own people,” Redbone said. “We’re alive, and we have multi cultures, and it should be celebrated. Nothing should be erased. It's too easy to wipe away people these days, and so I refuse to succumb to that.”

In “Bone Hill,” the audience is part of the story, but Redbone says she doesn’t want to make them feel guilty as they learn.

“It was very important for us to tell this truth without pointing the finger at people who are in our audiences, because that’s not what we’re here to do,” she said.

Rather, the goal is to educate people on the lesser-known parts of history, and from there, audiences “can do with it what they will.”

“We're not here to make anything other than truth through music,” Redbone said.

And that, she said, inspires audiences of many different backgrounds and identities.

“What has been happening in our performances is that the audiences start to reflect on who they are and how they came to be in the space, and the histories of their own families and to pay attention to that and to celebrate that,” Redbone said. “For me, that’s the real bonus gift.”

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.