Reviewed by Johan Palme on 6th December, 2015
Odetta is an artist whose career really thumbs its nose to all cultural essentialists out there. Born in the American South, grown up in California, yet with a fan base mosly in the North-East. Trained as a contralto opera singer in the Marian Anderson mould – that vibrato could come from nowhere else – yet ending up in folk music, a genre obsessed with vocal simplicity. A proud sophisticate in a movement where African-Americans were almost universally coerced into fake primitiveness. A world-wide star with a huge black middle-class fanbase (Rosa Parks was supposedly her “number one fan”) singing in a genre constructed afterwards as particularly white-oriented. Odetta, through sheer force of will, defied easy categorisation.
When she tackles the treasury of African-American Christmas spirituals it sounds nothing like anyone else, such is her power. At its best, it’s equally far from the musical theatre operatics of Marian Anderson as it from traditionally sung spiritual styles. Accompanied by nothing more than double bass – sometimes bowed – and on most songs by an acoustic guitar, her voice veers through an impressive range of pitches and expressions. She sounds like an opera singer one moment, a gospel singer the next, a folk-pop singer sometimes, conciously evading settling in either.
Consistently, Odetta has a distinct, distinguished calm. In a way, it’s easy to see why Martin Luther King praised her above almost all other artists; their vocal convictions are similar, though filtered though entirely different prosody. She delivers Christmas music as though it were a political speech. And perhaps these songs, once sung in covert resistence to oppression, are entirely suitable to being sung that way.