Sings Ballads & Blues
(1956; Empire MusicWerks, 2005)

Odetta, a force of nature, is still going strong as a tornado, still issuing the occasional recording -- most recently the brilliant Lead Belly tribute Lookin' for a Home (M.C., 2001), with the master's repertoire reimagined in modern blues-band settings. A friend who attended the latest Folk Alliance conference saw Sylvia Tyson (b. 1940) present Odetta Gordon (b. 1930) with a lifetime achievement award. It was the younger woman, my friend remarked, who looked like the old lady.

This reissue puts Odetta's first two recordings, plus four bonus tracks, into circulation again. In other words, anybody who loves folk music, in the revival of which Odetta has played an enormous but from this distance not always fully appreciated role, will celebrate the occasion by purchasing it immediately. Or ought to, anyway. Really, it's that simple. First released in 1956, these records directly influenced everybody from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Janis Joplin to Taj Mahal to Alvin Youngblood Hart, and if they don't know, who among us does?

If you don't know it's coming, Odetta's big, booming voice may throw you, even scare you if you are of a nervous disposition. Though born in Birmingham, Alabama, she moved at a very young age to San Francisco, where as soon as she was old enough she was training for the opera and the musical theater. In other words, she did not pick up rural music directly from Southern African-American traditions; she got it from the burgeoning West Coast folk scene she discovered in the early 1950s. She didn't modify her style all that much to accommodate songs ordinarily performed in a more intimate, vernacular voice. Other vocalists of her range and talent have become gospel singers or blues shouters, but Odetta chose her own course, and everyone who has heard her is better for it.

One genre not much in evidence, the title notwithstanding, is blues. The one pure blues, "Muleskinner Blues," is from the white country singer Jimmie Rodgers, though Rodgers, who had little interest in composing songs, probably picked this one up from some itinerant black songster in his native Mississippi and simply claimed the copyright. Odetta is at her most dazzling when she tackles spirituals, for example in "Spiritual Trilogy" ("Oh Freedom," "Come and Go with Me," "I'm on My Way"), which will -- I mean pretty close to literally -- knock you off your feet. There's too much power there for you to risk it any way but safely seated.

Nearly all of these songs have African-American roots in the pre-blues culture of the 19th-century South. That ought to remind any listener who automatically equates all black folk music with blues, which barely existed (if it existed at all) before the turn of the last century. Besides spirituals, Odetta revives prison and work songs, including shanteys which African-American sailors surely sang ("Santy Anno," the beautiful, funereal "Deep Blue Sea"). There is also a calypso, "Shame & Scandal," whose melody appears to have inspired the lachrymose '50s faux-folk song "Scarlet Ribbons," made famous by Harry Belafonte in one of his lesser moments, then recycled endlessly by the white-bread groups the late Dave Van Ronk used to call "Babbitt balladeers."

In any event, now is the time to stop reading and to do whatever you must to add this CD to your collection as soon as circumstances allow, and not a moment longer. Otherwise -- who knows? -- I could show up at your door and severely chastise you for neglecting your folkly duty.

Seriously, everybody: this is gorgeous and essential stuff, the music of the true vine. It will enrich your life.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 4 June 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.