Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Odetta -- gone

She died yesterday.

Identifiable from the first syllable, her voice fused the thrill of gospel, the techniques of art song, — the wisdom that subtlety sometimes trumps volume — and the desperate wail of blues. If a line could be drawn from Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin, from Mahalia Jackson to Maria Callas, it would have to go through Odetta.

Her resonance was literal, political — few civil rights rallies of the early '60s were complete without an Odetta rendition of "We shall Overcome" — and cultural. "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta," Bob Dylan once said, and listening to that Tradition album helped persuade the young rocker to switch from electric to acoustic guitar. Odetta returned the favor in 1965, recording an LP of Dylan songs with an emphasis on the antiwar numbers rather than Dylan's sheaf of civil-rights ballads.


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