Odetta 

1965 — Odetta Sings Dylan  (RCA Victor)

I had the pleasure of seeing Odetta live in either 2007 or 2008, shortly before her death. She was 76 or 77 by then, and had to sit in order to sing (sans guitar), but her powerhouse voice still came through clear as a bell. She’s one of the many important folk-oriented American singers from the 1950s and 1960s whose work and recordings are not commonly known to younger music fans today, sadly.

 

Odetta actually met pre-fame Bob Dylan when he was only 18 years old, in 1960, when she was visiting Minneapolis. Dylan by then had been an Odetta-convert for a couple of years, and he in fact later credited her for inspiring him to take up folk music in the first place. She evidently said some encouraging things to the young Mr. Zimmerman, which would have naturally pleased him, and shortly afterwards he made his legendary trek to New York City and his appointment with destiny.

 

By 1964, Dylan was no longer a folk singer but a songwriter of unparalleled quality and prolificacy (not to forget a little thievery). Odetta’s career had been going well for several years, and, then about age 33, she decided to cut an entire LP of Bob Dylan’s songs. This was quite a unique thing, as only one artist (Linda Mason, whose album was obscure even in 1964) had made such an album before Odetta did it. Within a few years, albums of Dylan songs would start to become commonplace, as they still are today.

Odetta Sings Dylan, issued at the start of 1965, features Odetta, of course, on acoustic guitar, the by-now legendary Bruce Langhorne on acoustic guitar (and a little tambourine), and folkie Peter Childs on guitar as well. But who is that on bass? On the All Music website, Richie Unterberger guesses that it’s Bill Lee (Spike Lee’s dad), but the Wiki article lists the bass-player as Les Grinage, which seems more likely to me as he had been Odetta’s frequent bassist for a few years before this recording was made.

The instrumentalists are very significant, as the arrangements here are sparse and none of the songs are played at a particularly fast tempo. Thus, you can really hear every little flick of the thumb that 

Langhorne makes, and the double-bass is highly audible at all times as well. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” actually opens with a little bass-solo. I would guess that these recordings were done with no overdubs (i.e., live in the studio), by this mini-band of fine musicians.

 

This in itself makes these Dylan songs interesting, as of course none of these tunes had band-arrangements when Dylan cut them. By the way, when Dylan got around to recording “Mr. Tambourine Man” himself, on January 15th 1965, for Bringing It All Back Home (1965), the guitarist accompanying him was… Bruce Langhorne. Now, Odetta Sings Dylan was released that same month, so I think I’m safe in assuming that Langhorne’s accompaniment on her track pre-dated his (very different) accompaniment on Dylan’s own version.

 

Anyway, check out the tracks that Odetta chose to play, remembering that the recording day(s) was likely the tail-end of 1964:

 

1. Baby, I’m in the Mood for You

2. Long Ago, Far Away

3. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

4. Tomorrow is a Long Time

5. Masters of War

6. Walkin’ Down the Line

7. The Times They Are A-Changin’

8. With God on Our Side

9. Long Time Gone

10. Mr. Tambourine Man

 

The Dylan songs in bold were extremely obscure in 1964… in fact, some of them are still obscure today (we can today hear Dylan sing most of them on volume 9 of The Bootleg Series: The Witmark Demos 1962-1964; “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You” has been commonly available since 1985 on Biograph). Odetta and Dylan were both managed by Albert Grossman, who presumably was the professional link between them, although most of these songs were published in New York City in Broadside, and were presumably available to anyone. Even “Mr. Tambourine Man”, as mentioned above, had yet to be issued by Dylan himself by the end of 1964, though he had written it the previous April and had played it at several live shows, as well as going through an aborted attempt at recording it for Another Side of Bob Dylan the previous June. Odetta may have heard him sing it and one or two of the more obscure songs, but I’m guessing they were recommended to her by Grossman, or perhaps she had heard other folkies singing them in clubs. Then again, maybe Grossman simply gave her the tapes of Dylan’s Witmark demos and she picked some she liked.

 

Whatever. The result is this stellar long-player, which I’d heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in American music of this period, in folk music, in Bob Dylan, or in Odetta. Can’t go wrong, any of you.

I’m really glad Odetta and her musicians cut “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You” – a jaunty, fun-lovin’ tune that puts a smile on your face. There’s even some percussion on here, which might just be Peter Childs or the engineer banging a cardboard box, but anyway it sounds great. Odetta gives it a mostly restrained vocal but at song’s end suddenly jumps into falsetto and it works a treat. “Long Ago, Far Away” has some bluesy-licks from Langhorne and a very serious tone. The lyrics reference Christ’s crucifixion, American slavery, bodies floating in war, poverty, and lynching.

 

These two openers are likely the most up-tempo tracks; hereafter, the record slows down. However, that has the bonus of bringing Odetta’s vocals into greater prominence.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is taken at a much slower pace than Dylan’s. The bass is prominent, as mentioned, and Langhorne’s picking and plucking are really cool here. Odetta sings with a lot of passion right from the start. The whole thing, for me, creates a happier and warmer mood than the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cut, which I find rather depressing (superb as it is). Also done slowly, and done extremely well, is the beautiful “Tomorrow is a Long Time”. This has long been recognized as one of Bob Dylan’s most beautiful and emotionally affecting songs. Odetta may have been one of the first singers to recognize its power, and her take is just as sublime as Dylan’s famous live performance at Town Hall in April, 1963.

 

Incidentally, this album was played to Elvis Presley by Charlie McCoy, which inspired Elvis himself to cut “Tomorrow is a Long Time”. Dylan later said this cover by Elvis was “the one recording I treasure the most”, so I guess he has Odetta to thank for that!

 

On the aural evidence, Odetta took the lyrics of “Masters of War” quite seriously, because she annunciates and articulates her vocals carefully. Well over six minutes long, the song ends abruptly when Odetta begins to repeat the “That’s the worst fear that can ever be hurled” verse… but then stops suddenly, as does the track.

 

Side 2 of the old vinyl album starts with another (then) obscurity, “Walkin’ Down the Line”. This track is what I call “chamber-music blues” – two or three musicians, including a singer, pickin’ and belting out a pretty blues, the natural way (i.e., not plugged-in), and keeping their own rhythm. Awesome stuff, especially with a singer like Odetta.

 

“The Times They Are A-Changin’” must be a familiar song to just about everyone by now. It was less iconic in 1964-65, but already on its way to being the media’s choice song to soundtrack anything about social change in the sixties. Odetta gives it a pretty straight reading, again pronouncing her words very clearly. It works well enough, I suppose, but maybe from today’s perspective this song is too familiar. I might enjoy this more if she and her musicians had given it a more unique arrangement.

 

“With God on our Side” was a powerful song in its day, though I’m not sure it has aged all that well. I would argue, in fact, that it and “The Times” are the two Dylan songs from his early years that didn’t really survive the sixties. For the defense, however, this version has a much more enjoyable arrangement than “The Times”. Langhorne (or Childs?) plays some tasty licks that form a melodic counter-point, which is musically agreeable, if oddly jaunty for a song with lyrics this heavy. The bass is pretty full here, too, and swings along briskly.

 

“Long Time Gone” is a really cool song that somehow is still largely unknown today. The lyric tells the reflections of a ramblin’, travelin’ young dude who was young when he left home. Odetta understandably deletes the verse about loving a “fair young maid”, but she also deletes the final (quite good) verse about the singer’s death and gravestone. Then again, maybe she thought there was already enough “death” on this album without it.

 

The last cut on the original LP is “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which is really interesting in that Odetta does it at a very slow pace, meaning the track goes on for the better part of eleven minutes (!). This is the most non-commercial version of this song I’ve maybe ever heard – call it the Anti-Byrds – and, accordingly, Odetta gets in all the verses in their pop-poetry perfection, which is the way to do this song justice. Still, I’m not sure this take isn’t a bit too slow, and eleven minutes is kind of stretching it, literally and figuratively. As the final song on the LP, however, it works well enough and is a very nice interpretation of this unsurpassable composition.

In the CD era, we also get bonus tracks “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Paths of Victory”, the latter of which was another relative obscurity. Odetta had actually recorded the former back in 1963 when it was still fresh and hadn’t been done to death by every human with a guitar in the Western world. (I don’t think Langhorne played on this – his absence is noticeable by comparison to the album-proper). It’s impossible to hear “Blowin’ in the Wind” with fresh ears today, perhaps, and this ’63 recording is a bit straight and a bit strident (i.e., dated), but for its time is perfectly nice. “Paths of Victory”, recorded by Odetta less than a year before the Sings Dylan LP, is a winner. It’s the rare short Dylan tune, bouncy and direct, with spiritual lyrics about the future victory awaiting the human struggle here and now. I dig Odetta’s voice on this one. She 

somehow can go from a gentle speaking voice to a barnstorming yowl in the space of one Bob Dylan line of verse – and it all sounds seamless.

 

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Odetta Sings Dylan is a fantastic album, both resonant of its time and place of creation and timelessly enjoyable. I say to the kids of today: Put away your nonsense pop music and get ye some classic Odetta!

 

Rave on, Odetta… and rest in peace.

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