First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri November 2, 2007, 06:40 AM CDT
If anyone has forgotten the power of a lone human voice that is backed only by the bare-bones accompaniment of a six-string guitar, he or she only needs to listen to a few bars of an Odetta song to be immersed in music as muscular and soulful as has ever been recorded. As she approaches her 78th birthday, the elemental force that propels Odetta’s vocals to rise from the depths of her being shows no sign of diminishing. Her installment in the new Vanguard Visionaries series showcases performances from her peak years, and it offers a good, if incomplete, overview of her amazing, interpretive talents.
Born in Alabama on New Year’s Eve in 1930, Odetta Holmes has been performing music since the age of 19, when she became a member of the chorus for the West Coast productions of Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls. Since the 1950s, she has been associated with the political folk movement, and she was championed early in her career by no lesser iconic figures than Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Harry Belafonte. After recording her first album Tin Angel in 1954, she created a number of influential LPs including Odetta at Carnegie Hall and Odetta at Town Hall, both of which included her own, powerful versions of traditional blues, folk, and gospel songs by artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. She is, perhaps, most famous, however, for turning Bob Dylan onto folk music. The young Dylan credited Odetta with encouraging him to trade his electric guitar for an acoustic model and for urging him not to give up music because he had, as she put it, a "chance of succeeding." Indeed, she must have believed this, as one of Odetta’s early albums is entitled Odetta Sings Dylan; not surprisingly, it remains one of the most popular collections in her back catalogue.
Vanguard Visionaries features many of her greatest songs, including a drop-dead version of Midnight Special that ought to convince anyone who is harboring doubts about the sheer power of Odetta’s voice. Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson are among the few other singers who can be considered her equals in terms of tone and purity, and fans of their work will find a lot to admire in Odetta’s recordings. However, as has been the case with the other discs in this reissue series, there simply wasn’t enough effort put into creating these compilations, and the packaging is hardly worthy of the legacy of the artists that are being showcased. There are only 10 songs on Odetta’s Vanguard Visionaries collection, which, regardless of the quality of the selections themselves, is nowhere near enough material do justice to her legacy. Further, there are no liner notes whatsoever, and new listeners are provided with no insight or context to the wonderful music that the disc contains.
Odetta is a rare artist, and she should be declared a living treasure. By all means, her career deserves more attention, and thankfully, there already are more comprehensive and far superior collections available. The problems with Vanguard Visionaries lie not with what is included, but rather with what isn’t. To put it plainly, the set provides too little music in exchange for a person’s money. There’s no question that Odetta’s work stands for itself, but both she and potential consumers deserve more respect than this hastily conceived and shoddily executed compilation can offer.
Of Further Interest...
Vanguard Visionaries is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box