Monday, October 29, 2012

Any Woman’s Blues #25 – Odetta

Happy Monday, friends! & welcome to the October edition of Any Woman’s Blues! But before we get to today’s featured artist, I’d like to announce some exciting news! I’ve been contacted by the publicist for last month’s featured artist Danielia Cotton, & as a result, Robert Frost’s Banjo will be featuring a free download of her song “Easy” from her new album The Gun in Your Hand, scheduled for release this very Wednesday, October 30th!  I’ll also be reviewing that album as Thursday’s post here.

It’s difficult to do justice to today’s featured artist, Odetta, in the scope of a blog post & through two videos. Indeed, the breadth of her music expands well beyond the scope of the blues as well: she sang—& made her own—songs from many traditions, & her version of the lovely Irish air, “I Know Where I’m Going” is every bit as moving as her singing of the African-American song “Take this Hammer.”  Odetta was born in Alabama, but raised in Los Angeles. Blessed with a remarkable voice, Odetta began operatic training in her early teens, & she seemed destined for a career in opera, given the beauty, power & range of her singing. However, while in San Francisco in 1950 (on tour with Finian’s Rainbow!) she became involved in the city’s burgeoning folk music scene, & decided that was the artistic path she would follow.

Early in her career, Odetta performed solo, accompanying herself on the guitar, or in partnership with banjoist Larry Mohr (as Odetta & Larry.) Seminal recordings from this time include Odetta Sings Ballads & Blues on Tradition & The Tin Angel/Odetta & Larry on Fantasy (Original Blues Classics.) The latter title refers to her gig at San Francisco’s Tin Angel nightclub near Fisherman’s Wharf in 1953-1954.

Later, Odetta moved beyond the solo or duet format, & began to sing with the band backing; as a result she broadened her repertoire still further, moving into jazz & blues with a much “bigger sound.” A good example of this from her later career is her version of Leadbelly’s “Jim Crow Blues,” which you can view on YouTube here.  All in all, Odetta released close to 30 albums, counting both studio & live recordings.

In the tradition of folk music, Odetta was politically active, & not only sang about struggle, but put her considerable talent & energy to work for the Civil Rights movement, not just during the 1960s, but throughout her career, right up until she passed away in December 2008. A history of Odetta’s career looked at from this perspective can be found here at

I’ve broken a bit with Any Woman’s Blues tradition in today’s videos. Although one is a live recording, there is no live footage of Odetta in either (though again, check out the link above for that!) The reason for this is simple: Any Woman’s Blues focuses on performers who not only sing but also play guitar, & most of the live videos of Odetta currently available are all so recent that they don't feature her excellent guitar playing (however there is also this very fun video of her with Tennessee Ernie Ford.) So we have two early songs in which she performs with guitar. One is the African-American work song “Waterboy,” & the second is the beautiful lullaby “All the Pretty Horses,” which also has an African-American heritage (though it may or may not have European elements as well—but of course, much of American folk song combines the two.)

Hope you enjoy these beautiful & powerful performances by a truly amazing & singular artist!


Image links to its source

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Entertainment: Vocalist Odetta.] – Wiki Commons – Public Domain as a US Government work


  1. I have admired Odetta for many years (and I have Harry Belafonte to thank for that, by the way.) I'm listening to "Water Boy" as I type, loving the strength of Odetta's voice. By the way, John, I tried to link to the Tennessee Ernie Ford video, but the link didn't work. :(

    1. Hi Sandra: Thanks! The link is working from here, but try this link & see if that one works!

  2. That one worked fine, John. Thank you. Fond memories, those.


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