Monday, January 02, 2006

I'm on my way and I won't turn back

Folk singer and guitarist Odetta turned 75 this last New Year's Eve, and there's a 51 year span between her first album from 1954, and her latest, Gonna Let It Shine, released a few months ago. In those five decades, she's blown minds with her powerful voice and influenced many notables in the folk music biz, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan; Odetta gave Dylan encouragement early in his career (before he was in NYC), and her album Sings Ballads and Blues inspired him to switch from an electric to an acoustic guitar. Stephinfans know Odetta from her astounding (and markedly non-indie) singing for the 6ths track "Waltzing Me All the Way Home"; her voice demands attention, being commanding and husky yet elegant. In an interview for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Merritt recalled witnessing the recording session:

"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 - "Gallows Tree (Gallows Pole)"
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.


Anonymous cryptoquip said...

I've been secretly hoping that you would post something by Dominique A., while you're on the topic of 6ths vocals.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Kuba said...

aww. sad news. one of my all time fav blogs.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Nina said...

Merritt once said he only trusted rockers who had gone to art school. OK, I can think of one, but can you come up with a list of who-all he might have meant?

8:24 PM  
Blogger Ernest said...

cryptoquip: I don't have anything by him in my own collection, but I did a blog search and found this blog entry, which features an MP3 of his. Get it while it's available!

kuba: Thanks! I'm flattered!

nina: Hmmm...Laurie Anderson, the Raincoats, Roxy Music...these threads on "I Love Music" (ONE, TWO, THREE) may be helpful.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Kuba said...

nina: there's john lennon, soft machine member Robert Wyatt, franz ferdinand, and just about everyone from liverpool or manchester in the 80's seems to have been an art student at some point.

5:42 PM  
Blogger David Jennings said...

Brian Eno (ok, already covered by Roxy Music possibly), David Bowie, Pete Townshend all went to art school.

Ernest, I think you've pretty much covered all the bases. It will have been a great year's work. Thanks!

7:32 PM  
Blogger Ernest said...

Thanks, David!

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Gee, that's sad. This is my favorite music blog. Are you going to do a week on Stephen Sondheim? Merrit seems to mention him all the time. And . . . can you please repost the Wild Stares song? I thought it was great.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Ernest said...

Adrian: Stephen Sondheim is on my list! The Wild Stares track is back up: "Babies Falling"

1:05 AM  

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