Another sad death to report – that of Odetta, one of the great singers of the last 50 years. Here’s a part of the entry on Odetta, from Michael Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia…, and below, an all-too-brief clip of Odetta at the Newport Folk Festival.
She was encouraged through the 1950s by many in the music business, especially Harry Belafonte, on whose 1959 TV Special she appeared to great effect. This can be readily imagined by anyone who saw the vintage footate of Odetta performing ‘Water Boy’ shown within Scorsese’s No Direction Home in 2005, on which the stark, ferocious power of her field-holler delivery and explosive use of the sound-box on her guitar were matched only by her terrifying teeth. This all leapt out at the viewer across a 50-year divide to explain instantaneously why Bob Dylan had found her so revelatory and important to his early entrancement with folk – and when it was new, such a performance must have exploded into Eisenhower America’s living rooms as the nightmare embodiment of the nation’s oppressed ex-slaves rising up as if to start a slaughter of revenge.
But Odetta was no field-hand, as made clear when, appearing at Belafonte’s Carnegie Hall concert of May 1960 – billed above Miriam Makeba and the Chad Mitchell trio – she followed a medley of ‘I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain’ and ‘Water Boy’ with a double act with Belafonte on that tiresome old Leadbelly song ‘There’s a Hole in the Bucket’, on which the timing and delivery of her spoken lines is that of a professional actress. To track back through her 1950s recordings is to recognise that despite the marvellous ferocity of ‘Water Boy’, the great majority are understandably invaded by the well-spoken gentility and concert-platform formality of musicianship that were prevalent in 1950s folk music, despite the way that both the blues and rock’n’roll had demonstrated the artistic glory to be had from abolishing these aspirations.