Being dubbed "The Queen of Folk" is no small feat. Having Martin Luther King, Jr. give you that title is something else entirely. That is how strongly affecting the music of folk pioneer Odetta is.
The Tradition Masters is a collection of Odetta's most invigorating traditional songs. Born in Birmingham in 1930, Odetta Holmes helped to embody both the Civil Rights and the Folk Revival movements of the 1950's and 60's. One could say that she was in the right place at the right time, but that would fail to credit her heart-stopping talent as a musician and vocalist.
Odetta has a voice that is simultaneously powerful, heartbreaking, and wise beyond its years. It taps into the long history of pain and sorrow of subjugation. It also achieves a state of solidarity over that hardship that other folksters such as Bob Dylan could only dream about. Odetta, on the other hand, was living and breathing it every day.
Many of the songs on The Tradition Masters are instrumentally sparse. There may be only a guitar or handclaps, but there is always the eternal presence of her thunderous voice. In fact, a song like "God's Gonna Cut You Down," a posthumous hit for a frail Johnny Cash, is mighty when Odetta sings it a capella. Both artists bring their own particular masteries to the song.
The songs are not all pain and woe. You can hear the roots of early rock 'n' roll in songs like "Shame and Scandal" and "Jack O' Diamonds." She perfects a groove in 1956 that thousands will try and replicate, but few will master.
I first became aware of Odetta while watching Martin Scorcese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home. In it there is an extraordinary performance that I wish was on The Tradition Masters. I have linked it below. As Odetta stands in a shroud of darkness with a lone spotlight on her face, she wails the song "Waterboy."
The piece is a prison labor song born out of post-slavery life. While that life was better than what came before, it was far from the ideal. What raises the song to a whole other level is our singer's ability to emulate the percussive sound of a whip crack with only her vocal chords. It is otherworldly and entrancing. Dylan must have thought so too. He once cited her influence in turning him on to folk music saying, "I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar." Of course...he went eventually went back to electric. But that's another story.
One of my favorite songs on The Tradition Masters is "The Fox," a delightful fable of a thieving predator wreaking havoc on a farmer's ducks and geese. Our balladeer comes up with different voices for all of the characters, offering fully realized storytelling that gives Wes Anderson's charming feature film Fantastic Mr. Fox a run for its money, reaching an equal state of whimsy in less than two minutes.
These songs bridge the gap between gospel, folk, and rock. There are well-known pieces such as "The Midnight Special" and "Greensleeves" that, when I heard them, became the definitive versions of those songs.
To learn more about this Odetta and her life, I suggest reading the children's biography Odetta: The Queen of Folk, by Stephen Alcorn. It is a vibrant picture book devoted to her life and talent. Though gorgeous both in its pictures and its words, to truly appreciate the power of this woman, you simply must hear her voice.