So my quest to find copies of every album in my Best Albums of 1959 continues with a copy of My Eyes Have Seen by Odetta. I had thought this one was going to be more difficult to find than it eventually was, all the copies seemed to be in the U.S but one popped up for £4 last week and I jumped on it, so now it is in my possession and another ticked off the list. I currently have 19 of the 30 in the list, so well on the way to finding them all.
So, Odetta, this was her fourth album release and, as far as I can see, it has only been re-released once since 1959 on vinyl, back in 1973 in Italy for some reason. As far as I can tell my copy is from 1959, it’s in OK shape but far from perfect, as long as it plays OK that’s fine though.
Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008), known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, lyricist, and a civil and human rights activist, often referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”. Her musical repertoire consisted largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she influenced many of the key figures of the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, and Janis Joplin. Time magazine included her recording of “Take This Hammer” on its list of the 100 Greatest Popular Songs, stating that “Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music.
The rear of the cover contains a paragraph explaining each song, in the language of the time, which I’ll share with you now:
- Poor Little Jesus – One of the most powerful Negro Christmas spirituals, Poor Little Jesus draws its strength from the contrast between its exulting melody and its lamenting text. It is far removed from the traditional, “sweet” carol as a plantation is from the meadows of the English countryside. Odetta ironically adds a modern reference which is deeply moving in its underlining of the seemingly endless tide of suffering.
- Bald Headed Woman – In this Negro prison song, a boasting air becomes both a comic mask to cloak the tragedies of prison life, and assertion of defiant strength. Songs of this kind, created under conditions whereby they must be carried by the human voice alone, attain a stark, classic line, and it is thus that Odetta sings it, unaccompanied, the silences as potent as the sung phrases, and with punctuation provided by her own hand claps.
- Motherless Children – This song is a variation of the better known spiritual, This Train. For the listener, Odetta’s version is a deeper one, since it juxtaposes the jubilation of the gospel train with the tragedies of life.
- I Know Where I’m Going – A tender and beautiful love song, which has become a favourite in the repertoires of ballad singers on both sides of the Atlantic.
- The Foggy Dew – An old Irish ballad that has been collected in various form. This haunting version celebrates the Easter rebellion against the British rule in 1916, which ended in defeat of the citizen army by the “long-range guns” of the British troops. The extraordinary accompaniment, with its mood of foreboding at the opening, and of the mournful defiance at its close, is a tour de force by Odetta’s guitar and the bass of Bill Lee, her accompanist.
- I’ve been Driving On Bald Mountain and Water Boy – Odetta’s linking of these work songs results in a sum greater than the parts. Here is a rhapsody on Negro labor which overwhelms the listener by its alternation of moods and the richness of its characterizations. Opening with the depiction of the proud, John Henry-like steel-driver, Odetta introduces his “buddy” who got hi “learnin’ ” on the Big Bend Tunnel, and shows the mutual respect of these masters of the sledge and spike. The tempo accelerates to a climax at which the mood of freedom suddenly breaks and we find the worker on the chain gang calling for the “water boy”. A mood of bitterness and anguish pervades the first verse, where the dull repetition of rock-breaking is reflected in the hardness of the voice. Then the prisoner’s memory awakes and a rich sense of the loss of freedom is unleashed in the “Jack of Diamonds” verse. Memory is erased in the tempo of labor which engulfs both singer and audience in a dramatic close.
- Ox Driver Song – This is a song of the American Southwest frontier, of the pioneers emigration by covered wagon or prairie chooner west from the Mississippi. The drive through mud and over steep hills required a granite-like fortitude and it is this quality which Odetta’s perfromance captures, with its unstoppable momentum and cumilative intensity.
- Down On me – Oddetta first heard this song in a Library of Congress recording by Vera Hall, as collected by Alan Lomax. The lyrics, with the outcry “Looks like everybody in the whole wide world is down on me” are secular, but the influence of the spirituals is not hard to perceive. A rich body of folk song, created by wandering singers, embodies such a bridge between the spirituals and the blues.
- Saro Jane – This is a song of a Negro rouster, a stevedore, who served on a U.S. gunboat that harassed the Confederate supply lines during the Civil War. It was collected by Dave Macon in 1887 from Negro singers in Nashville, Tennessee, and is considered the first example of the “roustabout” songs which arose on the great rivers of the centrsl United States. Filled with good humour, its finest irony is its claim that the stevodores have “nothing to do but sit down and sing”.
- Three Pigs – With the inflections that Odetta gives to this children’s song, it becomes a fable for grown ups.
- No More Cane On The Brazos
- Jumpin’ Judy – Tqo Negro prison songs, which express quite different emotions, No More Cane speaks openly and literally of suffering and degradation, expressing personal sorrow and mood of resignation. It is poetically the more profound lyric, especially in its ironic opening statement. Jumpin Judy, which shares some verses in common with Leadbelly’s Midnight Special, is a comic fantasy, in which ribald ellements effectivly mask the resentments and bitter sarcasm.
- Battle Hymn Of The Republic – The melody is of folk origin, despite authorship claims of several 19th-century composers. The words are by Julai Ward Howe who wrote them in December 1861 after hearing Union soldiers singing John Browns Body as they went to battle near Washngton D.C. The Battle Hymn was first published in the Atlantic Monthly of February 1862 and became the anthem of the Union forces.
Upon listening to this album twice as I wrote out the above I am genuinely suprised that it isn’t more well known, revered even. Perhaps it is but I’m just not aware of it. Though it may not be your normal listening choice I do urge you to put half an hour aside and just listen to it from start to finish, it is a wonderful collection of songs beautifully performed.