Livin' With The Blues
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Odetta released her first album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, in 1956. This is some two years before the beginning of the folk revival with which she is usually associated. The power of her singing seems to connect her to an earlier folk music, more elemental and raw than her late-50s and early-60s peers. Unlike the Highwaymen or other popular interrupters of classic folk songs, Odetta seems closer in both approach and presentation to Leadbelly. Her interest in folk music appeared to be less of a personal "revival" or awakening, than a continuation of a living tradition. |
Livin' With The Blues collects a number of Odetta's blues songs recorded for Vanguard during the 1960s, including several that have been previously unreleased. The majority of the songs feature Odetta singing and playing guitar with bassist Bill Lee holding up the bottom end. The newer material includes Odetta singing folk and blues with piano, bass, and drum accompaniment.
The guitar pieces present an Odetta that will be most familiar to those who remember her from the 60s. On songs like Jumpin' Judy and Timber her voice resonates deep and powerful emotions. The guitar offers a driving rhythm while staying in the background, allowing her voice to take center stage. Rambler Gambler and Midnight Special are more restrained, but present a subtle tension that holds the listener in sway. Bill Lee's bass adds depth and drive to these songs. On Another Man Done Gone Odetta accompanies herself by clapping, creating a haunting atmosphere that is reinforced when, at the song's end, the formerly quiet audience applauds.
Four of the eight piano tunes had been released on The Best of the Vanguard Years in 1999, and the other four are new to this collection. Although these songs lack the depth or presence of the guitar material, they offer a nice contrast. On Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor" the vocal is effective, but somehow out of sink with the accompaniment. The drums on this cut, and Rosie, seem too loud. The "busier" arrangements distract from Odetta's greatest asset, her voice. The vocal delivery also comes across as stilted and less natural in these settings. While these eight songs are good, they're just not Odetta.
Odetta recorded prolifically during the 60s, and Livin' With The Blues offers an enjoyable place to sample her blues work. The listener is reminded that powerful folk singers like Odetta are capable of evoking and connecting with the most basic emotions in the human spirit. For older fans, the eight tracks released during the last two years will be of interest, while newer converts will have a generous collection to help acquaint them with the great folk singer. Either way, Livin' With The Blues will help remind everyone of just how good Odetta is.