At the Gate of Horn
(Tradition, 1957;
Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

Originally released in 1957, At the Gate of Horn is another classic from the Tradition catalogue. A wonderful label set up by the Clancy Brothers to give a home to some of the early singers of the burgeoning folksong movement, Tradition predated all of the revival imprints except Folkways. Its LPs showcased songs that would shortly provide material -- some of it to be sung to exhaustion by the time the enthusiasm had run its course -- for the Folk Scare musicians lurking just around the cultural bend.

With her booming, full-throated voice, Odetta could have been an opera singer or a musical-theater performer or a gospel artist. All of these options were open to her when, as a classically trained Alabaman transplanted to San Francisco, she was introduced to folk music in the early 1950s. She made her choice, and ever since (though illness has kept her largely inactive in her 70s), she's been a beloved presence and influence, happily personifying the otherwise dreary cliche "living legend."

On this, her second album, she visits mostly material -- ballads, spirituals, work songs, children's lullabies -- from several traditions. The songs, probably unfamiliar to 1950s listeners but destined to be well known and often covered, include "Sail Away, Ladies," "Lowlands," "The Midnight Special," "Deep River" and others. Few if any folk singers bother with "Greensleeves" anymore, which only means that its appearance here is a pleasant surprise, though naturally her interpretation of it is not remotely Elizabethan. It's also good, not least for purely nostalgic purposes, to hear once more the long-unsung "Lass from the Low Countree," folk-weirdo John Jacob Niles's appropriately peculiar faux-trad ballad.

This is not, by the way, a live album, notwithstanding the once-celebrated, many years-defunct Chicago nightclub mentioned in the title. That establishment also figures in the latter half of the name of an album by Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp, all the rage in the very early revival though in retrospect its appeal seems all but inexplicable. Gibson and Camp, unlike Odetta, were performing live in front of an audience (and a well-heeled one; the Gate of Horn was for swells, not folkniks).

As is customary with early revival records, the accompaniment here is solely a strummed acoustic guitar. Nothing fancy, but that's all right. We are here, after all, for that voice, to remind us that there was, is, and always will be only one Odetta.

by Jerome Clark
27 January 2007

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