Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues

Odetta

album cover

A Record of Incalculable Influence

This is allegedly the record that inspired a young Bob Dylan to trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic model; years later, he said Odetta was "the first thing that turned me on to folk singing." He was not alone. Many folk-revival artists cited this 1956 document and the several that followed as primary catalysts.

The fierce Odetta, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, started out wanting to be an opera singer. That was a daunting challenge in the segregated 1950s, so she pursued musical theater, and at eighteen became part of a touring production of Finian's Rainbow. When the tour got to San Francisco, she heard folk music and was hooked: She learned to play guitar and began singing the mix of work songs, spirituals, and blues that would, in a few years, make her famous.

Odetta recorded several times before she was signed to the Tradition label, but Sings Ballads and Blues is her first fully realized statement. Its songs associated with Leadbelly ("Easy Rider," "Muleskinner Blues") show how authoritative Odetta was as a guitarist; her timing is flawless. And they present her as a riveting singer, particularly in her fulminating lower register (her high notes still have a touch of operatic affectation here). Of special note are the spiritual songs, among them "Joshua" and the closing medley that includes "Oh Freedom," "Come and Go with Me," and a resolute "I'm on My Way." These have a spine-chilling directness, a sense of hard-won knowledge that the more collegiate folkies couldn't match.

Sings Ballads and Blues has been reissued many different ways. The most rewarding package is the two-disc The Tradition Masters, which includes the stirring At the Gate of Horn, recorded live in a Chicago club. This time, Odetta isn't alone: She's accompanied by bassist Bill Lee, filmmaker Spike Lee's father, a steadying (and underappreciated) presence on many great folk records.

Genre: Folk
Released: 1956, Tradition
Key Tracks: "Muleskinner Blues," "Joshua," "Deep in the Pen," "Jack o' Diamonds." From At the Gate of Horn: "Midnight Special," "Take This Hammer"
Catalog Choice: At Carnegie Hall
Next Stop: Karen Dalton: It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best
After That: Oscar Brown Jr: Sin and Soul
Book Pages: 561–562

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