I'm on my way and I won't turn back
"I think I actually cried at the recording session because it was so unexpectedly beautiful. Hearing Odetta sing my song for the first time was like hearing an orchestra play my symphony for the first time, I imagine."
And in an interview for NY Blade, Merritt explained Odetta's unique interpretation of the song:
"She told me that she saw the song ‘Waltzing Me All the Way Home’ as being about two gay black soldiers in World War II, which is completely different from what I thought of the song being about. I don’t generally think of my characters in visual terms so I didn’t have any race in mind. I also don’t really think of singers in visual terms."
Merritt has admired Odetta for a long time, as she (along with Jefferson Airplane) performed at the first concert he ever attended, and in the 69LS interview booklet, Merritt named her as one of the great vocalists in the pantheon. At one of the Magnetic Fields performances at Town Hall in NYC in 2004, Claudia Gonson placed a copy of Odetta's At Town Hall album at the front of the stage; apparently, they saw it for sale by a street vendor that very day and took that as a good omen. *(see footnote)
"Gallows Tree" (a.k.a. "Gallows Pole") is a tense song from the point of view of a person trying to stall his own death by pleading with the hangman. It's a traditional song that was included in Leadbelly's repertoire, but I'm partial to Odetta's version (from her 1957 album At the Gate of Horn), which demonstrates her impressive guitar chops. (By the way, the person playing bass on that song is Bill Lee, film director Spike Lee's father.) Odetta's "Spiritual Trilogy" comes from the forementioned Sings Ballads and Blues album from 1956, and it's a stirring medley, to say the least. By the time she gets to "I'm on My Way," she's practically barking out the words, passionately, and she ends each sustained note with an exhausted wilt - it gives me the shivers every time.
Odetta - "Spiritual Trilogy: Oh Freedom / Come and Go with Me / I'm on My Way"
Note: just so it won't be startling news when the time comes, I'm going to be wrapping this blog up probably at the one year mark - around Valentine's Day. While theoretically I could write about every last artist Merritt has ever mentioned, I feel like I've kept things fairly relevant so far to the task of unlocking his tastes and influences. I have artists picked out for the last six weeks, but if any of you have some suggestions or requests, I'd be happy to read them.
* footnote added 1/9/06: my remembrance was somewhat incorrect. Here are my notes from soon after the performance:
Stephin brought a copy of an Odetta album (a live performance at Town Hall!) and displayed it in front of him. He said that someone bought it on the street for him that day.