Friday, December 30, 2011

Dylan's First Muse: Odetta

If only one could be sure that every fifty years a voice and a soul like Odetta's would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time. (Maya Angelou)

On December 31, 1930 in Alabama, a girl child was born and given a name that meant ‘ode’ in French: Odetta.  This being the time of Jim Crow, the girl and her mother and sister moved away from Alabama to find work and a better life. They settled in Los Angeles.  “I didn’t know I had a voice. I just knew I loved music.  A teacher told my mom that I had a voice and might benefit from some training and that was the first time I understood I had a voice.

“I didn’t want to be anybody. Because I was a tall big black woman my teacher wanted me to be the next Marian Anderson. I adored Marian Anderson and still do but I didn’t want to be anybody else.”

Odetta was taught the art of opera singing. She began acting in musicals such as Finian’s Rainbow but left the world of classical and theatre music when she encountered the folk revival of the early 1950s.

“In San Francisco we were the last of the Bohemians. The beatniks came next. The times were a changing…you know just we called it something different. I went to the Joint and heard people with guitars singing. And I knew I was home. My classical singing was great but it didn’t mean anything to me. It was in folk music, the work songs, in which I could feel the anger, the hate, the pain that I got my rocks off.”

Her imposing presence and powerful voice made Odetta impossible to ignore. She released her first record of folk and blues tunes in 1956. The Civil Rights movement was beginning to set America aflame and Odetta was in the public vanguard of the fight for liberation.

“The folk and work songs were slavery songs but songs of Liberation. When you walk through life with the foot of society on your throat and there is no way you can get out from under that foot, you come to crossing in the road. Either you can lay down and die or you can insist upon your life. And those who wrote those work songs were those who insisted upon their lives. And they were a great inspiration to me.

“These songs come out of difficult times, and since the difficult times haven't been fixed, the songs are still here for us.

“The first wound I suffered was on a train to Los Angeles when the conductor came into our compartment and said, Coloured people aren’t allowed.  That was the first time I realized that who I was and where I came from wasn’t worth a thing.  The music healed me though.”

She sang in front of thousands and millions on TV watched her sing at the rally where Martin Luther King Jr gave his I Have a Dream speech.  A skinny young Jewish boy from Minnesota heard Odetta’s first record. 

"The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.  [That album was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record," confessed Bob Dylan years later.

In a few years when that skinny Jewish boy was the new object of affection of the folk singing crowd, Odetta repaid the compliment by making a recording of his songs.   And it is the subject of tonight’s post.

The music on the album is astounding.  Odetta’s deep authoritative voice makes each of these songs, only a year or two old when she sang them, seem as old the prison songs of Leadbelly and Bukka White. And to have emerged from the same blood sweat and tears.  As if Dylan was a natural and essential part of the same deep musical river of freedom.  

Dylan’s songs, especially Blowin’ in the Wind were already being covered by other folk artists when Odetta made this record. But most versions pale when compared to Odetta’s  ferocious renditions that give each song a basic legitimacy and vitality that must have meant so much to Dylan. Listen especially to Mr Tambourine Man.

Some have complained that this record is not a folk album. That Odetta’s classical training is too much in evidence.  I disagree. It is exactly her blending of the opera house and cotton field that gives these versions of what are now classic songs their gravitas.  Odetta’s voice is simply magnificent. Like a Ferrari driving down a busy city street, it is just bursting to break free and shake some bones.

“I'm not a real folksinger.... I don't mind people calling me that, but I'm a musical historian. I'm a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I've been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.

Happy Birthday Odetta!

         Track Listing:
         01 Baby, I'm In The Mood For You
02 Long Ago, Far Away
03 Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
04 Tomorrow Is A Long Time
05 Masters Of War
06 Walkin' Down The Line
07 The Times They Are A-Changin'
08 With God On Our Side
09 Long Time Gone
10 Mr. Tambourine Man
11 Blowin' In The Wind
12 Paths of Victory

Listen here.

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