Livin with the Blues
Vanguard is celebrating its 50th birthday with a slew of classic re-releases, often including unreleased tracks that show another side of the artists. This is the case with the new Odetta collection. I saw Odetta perform at the Boston folk festival two years ago. She got out on stage with her big 12-string guitar and opened with "Kumbaya." Nobody can get away with performing "Kumbaya" anymore. Except Odetta. Alone. She has the authority to define the tradition and the power to bring audiences around. Here she does it again.
This release collects classic Odetta performances from the 1960s. The first half of the album is not what you might expect, however. After the opening track, "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor," there are four previously unreleased tracks - plus three more that were only released last year - on which Odetta sings the blues accompanied by a jazz trio of piano, bass and drums. These musicians (oddly uncredited) give the great singer a chance to play around a little, to have a little fun, jazz it up. These songs include "Mean and Evil," "Livin With The Blues," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," and "Special Delivery Blues." The arrangement also makes for an unusual version of "House of the Rising Sun." In these songs, she can be compared to Bessie Smith.
I'm not sure about the overall makeup of the album. After the opening song, these seven piano-combo tunes seem packed together, followed again by 11 more songs in Odetta's more famous, familiar folk style. Sandwiched in, and making up only about a third of the album, it's unclear what kind of overall statement the collection is trying to make. It might have made more sense to either spread them out - as with the tracks from her earlier albums - or to make them take up fully half the disc, making it a two-sided portrait of Odetta the blues singer. Still, these tracks do add a new dimension to Odetta as an artist, and they help us see some of the signature tracks that follow - "Rambler Gambler," "Midnight Special," "Rambling Round Your City" - in a new light.