Lady, Sing the Blues

Odetta is happy to find trouble everywhere she goes.

Today, Odetta credits her increased awareness of the need for social action in the Sixties to singer and friend Paul Robeson, with whom Odetta collaborated and recorded during that decade. "Paul was the one who helped me know that it was possible -- no -- not only possible, but absolutely necessary to be responsible to my brothers and sisters on the earth. He politicized me."

But Odetta's tone changes from reminiscence to dead seriousness when she reflects on the personal experiences with racism which led her to willingly lend her voice to the movement.

"You know I'm a black woman?" she says. "You know how black people were treated in this country? Of course I encountered racism, and no history book had to tell me there were certain places in this country you just didn't go."

Smile, darn ya, smile: Odetta cradles her trusty guitar.
Smile, darn ya, smile: Odetta cradles her trusty guitar.

While the movement was gaining steam, if not wide support, within the mainstream, Odetta was doing both. The same year as the March, she released Folk Songs, which sold well and led to a recording relationship with Vanguard Records and bassist Bill Lee (Spike's father). She and Lee became staples of national folk festivals like the Newport Folk Festival and performed solo concerts at Carnegie Hall. During this period, Odetta remained largely aligned with folk music, though her forays into traditional gospel revealed both a spiritual and a playful side. This past January, Vanguard released Odetta: Best of the Vanguard Years, which includes many gospel and blues-tinged songs from a 1963 Carnegie Hall concert. The album is an excellent sample of the diversity of Odetta's work in the Sixties -- which led some purists to call her erratic. Woody Guthrie's "Rambling Round Your City" comfortably follows Huddie Ledbetter's "Cotton Fields"; a faithful rendition of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" is smack dab in the middle of a record that winds up with a goose-bump-inducing version of "House of the Rising Sun," in which her sailing vocals are at once commanding, spiritual and sensual, a combination only Miss Odetta herself could pull off.

Best of the Vanguard Years is one of several new Odetta releases; the recent wealth of offerings allows the singer to boast a catalogue of twenty-six solo albums. In February, Silverwolf released To Ella, a tribute to the fabulous Fitzgerald inspired by the Lady's passing. Happily, the word "tribute" takes on a fresh connotation here, as Odetta reworks many of her own classics as love letters to Fitzgerald rather than attempting her own versions of songs that singer popularized. Later this month, MC Records will release Blues Everywhere I Go, a compilation of songs influenced or written by blues greats of the Twenties through the Forties, such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Memphis Minni and Big Bill Broonzy. Odetta's backing band on the release includes Dr. John as well as the underrated blues guitarist Jimmy Vivano and other members of the Late Night With Conan O'Brien band.

Odetta's past and present ventures into blues territory allow her to explore a side of her musical ability untapped by her folk efforts. "I don't have to choose between [folk and blues] for sure," she says. "I enjoy both. You might like spinach and you might like apple pie, and you might have to give one up for the other sometimes.

"I can't play the blues on the guitar. So when we do the blues shows it's very inspiring -- we explore other parts of my possibilities."

As a performer who's always exercised tremendous control over her own career, Odetta is proud to serve as a musical historian on aspects of black history in America. She has less enthusiasm for the directions some currently popular black musicians are taking, though. She's a hip lady, no question, but Odetta just can't get into most rap or hip-hop. She politely defers from naming names but suggests that many artists reduce legitimate social issues to a cartoonish level.

"I'm anxious to find the songs that explore what the lives of black people have been and not just songs that are stereotyping it," she says. "I am so sick of that. I'm on a quest within the blues to address that."

Ripping it up with a blues band, both on the road and in the studio, isn't exactly a routine activity for a woman going on seventy. But Blues Everywhere I Go finds Odetta's voice as elastic, as commanding, as sassy as any contemporary artist endeavoring to croon authentically about trouble, bein' poor and low down, bein' lonely. The album moves from expressive whimsicality on the title track ("There's blues in my mailbox/blues in my breadbox/blues everywhere I go") to the heart-stinging, spare and poignantly simple beauty of "Please Send Me Someone to Love" to matter-of-fact laments like "Can't Afford to Lose My Man" and "Unemployment Blues." On Blues, she's attained a vocal wisdom that allows her to be as comfortable adding color in a high falsetto as she is growling like an animal on "Dink's Blues"; it's as if she is presenting a blues opera in which she plays all of the parts. Odetta's voice is the same one children imagine when they think of benign witches or voodoo princesses; hers is the voice of the strange lady who lives down the block but who nonetheless possesses a divine, indisputable knowledge of the way things are. And when she sings "Just 'cause I'm in misery, I don't ask for no sympathy," on "Please Send Me Someone to Love," it's hard not to feel like a whiny chump for bemoaning your own little life.

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