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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, December 30, 2010


Odetta died on Decenber 2, 2008 - I reprinted an obituary of her on this blog at the time - but she would have been 80 years old tomorrow. Here's a specially-updated version of her entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Odetta [1930 -2008]

Odetta Holmes Felious Gordon was born on the last day of 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama but she grew up from the age of 6 in LA with her mother and a sister, took singing lessons at 13 studying music at City College and becoming an actress, teacher and songwriter but more significantly a singer, at first hovering between musical shows and folksong but soon plumping for the folk. She had appeared in Finian’s Rainbow through summer 1949, during which she first encountered the blues in the form of SONNY TERRY; in 1950 she was in San Francisco playing in Guys and Dolls, and there discovered the local folk scene. Her first concert, in San Francisco in 1952, co-produced by folksinger Rolf Kahn and the 18-year-old LYNN CASTNER (at whose Minneapolis apartment Dylan would first hear WOODY GUTHRIE’s records) had people queuing round the block; her New York début, achieved only by taking time off from her work as an LA housekeeper, was in 1953 at the Blue Angel. Then came a shortlived duo, Odetta and Larry, yielding her début album, The Tin Angel (the name of a Philadelphia club), recorded in 1953 and ’54, on which it’s clear that the competent Larry Mohr, on banjo and vocals, was utterly superfluous. Less was Mohr, she must have decided. In 1956 came the solo Odetta Sings Ballads & Blues, and the next year At the Gate of Horn, recorded not live at the Chicago club but in the studio, and with BILL LEE on bass.

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 footage 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 soundbox 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 fieldhand, 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.

In Minneapolis at at start of the 1960s, JAHANARA ROMNEY (aka Bonnie Beecher) told The Telegraph 30 years later, ‘Odetta was coming to town…so me and Cynthia Fisher were plotting as to how we could get Dylan to meet Odetta and play for her…And in fact he did meet her…. Cynthia Fisher came running over to my house…saying “She said that Dylan had real talent and he can make it!”’

This thrilled Dylan, keeping his determination fully charged, and encouraging his inclusion of Odetta repertoire items in his own. Years later, Dylan would specify that he had devoured Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, her 1956 album: ‘I learned all the songs on that record,’ he said: ‘…“Mule Skinner”, “Jack of Diamonds”, “Water Boy”, “’Buked and Scorned”.’ He may also have learnt ‘Devilish Mary’, ‘Ain’t No More Cane’ and ‘No More Auction Block’ from early Odetta recordings.

In 1960 she appeared at the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL, made a flurry of albums, including Odetta at Carnegie Hall, and was an acceptable guest on Ed Sullivan’s TV show ‘Toast of the Town’ that Christmas Day - but was criticised for 1962’s Odetta and the Blues because it was ‘closer to jazz than folk’, as Time put it. This LP featured a combo of jazz musicians, including pianist Dick Wellstood, who that year also played on a couple of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sessions. Switching labels again she made two albums for the heavyweight RCA (Belafonte’s label), the second of which, Odetta Sings Folk Songs, in 1963, made the Top 75 album charts. It included her ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ - and by 1965 she had recorded Odetta Sings Dylan.

BRUCE LANGHORNE plays guitar and tambourine, and the tracks are ‘Baby, I'm In The Mood For You’, ‘Long Ago, Far Away’, ‘Don't Think Twice, It's All Right’, ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’, ‘Masters Of War’, ‘Walkin' Down The Line’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, ‘With God On Our Side’, ‘Long Time Gone’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’: a mix of the obvious with the far from obvious, revealing that she had paid Dylan’s work, including unreleased material, close attention.

Odetta has also written songs, appeared in films - including Tony Richardson’s film of the William Faulkner novel Sanctuary in 1961 and, uncredited, Paul Newman’s extravagantly titled The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972). In late September 2005 she was one of the more effective performers at the London Royal Albert Hall’s ‘Talking Bob Dylan Blues: A Tribute Concert’, no longer subduing the audience with ‘Water Boy’ but by taking ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ at a punishingly funereal pace. She died December 2, 2008, four weeks before her 78th birthday.

[Odetta: The Tin Angel, US, 1954; Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Tradition TLP1010, US, 1956; Odetta at the Gate of Horn, Tradition TLP1025, 1957; Odetta at Carnegie Hall, Amadeo Vanguard AVRS9027, US, 1960; Odetta and the Blues, Riverside RLP-9417, US, 1962; Odetta Sings Folk Songs, RCA LSP2643, 1963; Odetta Sings Dylan, RCA LSP3324, 1965. ‘Talking Bob Dylan Blues: A Tribute Concert’, London, 26 Sep 2005. Harry Belafonte: Returns to Carnegie Hall, NY 2 May, 1960, RCA LOC-6007 (mono) & LSO-6007, US, 1962. Time, US, 23 Nov 1962, quoted from; special thanks to Åke Holm’s amazing discography online at; both seen online 10 Feb 2006.]


Anonymous A Defrocked Priest said...


Wondered why there is no entry on Bessie Smith (one of the few singers Bob has actually written a song about) in the Encyclopedia. She also was an important influence in Dylan's early days (esp. Black Mountain Blues) and he played some tracks of hers on Theme Time.

8:08 am  

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