Odetta has the ability to take a song and use it to wrench the heart from those fortunate enough to hear her

Feature by Duncan Forgan | 16 Apr 2006
The sorry state of soul music these days is almost as effective a
tearjerker as some lovelorn epic from the genre's golden age. Gimlet
eyed record company execs and their weapon of choice, the
relentless multi-media marketing machine, might try their best to
convince us that bland ciphers such as Joss Stone, Lemar and Corrine
Bailey Rae are continuing a lineage that stretches all the way back
to the cotton fields and the churches of the American south but
anyone with even a passing interest in black music will know that
packaged politeness and tastefully arranged horn-sections don't equate to real soul.

It's the gutbucket stuff we are after; songs of longing and devotion. Tales of hope and loss in a world gone wrong. Music from somewhere deep within. Thankfully, the good people at Triptych have ensured that a fix of
this heady hit will soon be forthcoming in the shape of Odetta - one
of the true heroines of 20th Century African American history. Not soul music in the strictest sense – she was classically trained, and came to prominence as an interpreter of folk songs, negro spirituals and gospel – Odetta, nevertheless, has always possessed the ability to take a song and use it to wrench the heart from those fortunate enough to hear her.

There's a clip in Martin Scorcese's peerless Bob Dylan documentary 'No Direction Home' that sums her up. Captured in grainy early-sixties footage singing the traditional No More Auction Block For Me, her strident and haunting performance is a breathtaking invocation of the ongoing struggle for black civil rights; a struggle in which - as a daughter of segregation capital Birmingham, Alabama - she was inexorably entangled.

Race relations on the other side of the pond might have come on since the days when she marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King but Odetta's pointedly political songs remain frighteningly relevant - look no further than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the ghettos of most large American cities for the evidence.

If all that sounds a bit earnest it should be remembered that Odetta's music as well as her message has left an indelible mark on the modern-day. The aforementioned Mr Zimmerman was a disciple as was Janis Joplin, and you can bet that her elemental work has a place in the well-thumbed record collections of more recent archivists such as Jack White and Will Oldham.

With real presence in short supply in today's music scene, an evening in Odetta's company is a prospect to be savoured. Just don't go expecting an easy ride.
Odetta plays the Queens Hall, Edinburgh as part of Triptych on Sunday April 30 and Glasgow Tramway on Friday 28th.