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Odetta: May the Circle Be Unbroken

In 1965, Odetta recorded an album of folk songs written recently by a young man then on the verge of unprecedented stardom and success. Odetta had arrived at the mid-point of America’s folk revival; a pivotal figure, she was a decade younger than Pete Seeger and a decade older than Joan Baez. She didn’t need Bob Dylan’s name, or his songs, to legitimize her repertoire; nevertheless, Odetta Sings Dylan was gamely calculated to entrench her deeper in the folk tradition while increasing her relevance to the popular market.

The source of folk authorship is a mystery the younger revivalists had resolved only tenuously. Most took material from the public domain by way of old commercial recordings. Some of them learned songs passed down from elders, a few even traveling the country in search of new sources. All of them borrowed freely from one another, though the desire to stand out in an increasingly crowded field led some to cross an implicit line—the songs may have been traditional, but they were not common property. Innovation came from a performer’s repertoire and song delivery, and the right to present a particular song or arrangement first, whether in person or on record, was guarded jealously. Baez and Dylan have both been criticized by some for performing the arrangements of other singers without permission. Driven young musicians, in such an atmosphere, inevitably began to write their own songs.

Odetta, however, remained an interpreter—her peers were more interested in folk as a medium of collective expression than the baby boomers, who wanted to stand out from the mainstream and used folk to articulate their eccentricity. The students in the coffeehouses frowned and turned from the audience, told tall tales about themselves, and held their heads up righteously, but Odetta was easy, warm, and open. Her voice could fill a room with fury and make it tremble in awe, but she smiled, too—a smile that “could melt diamonds,” the singer Dave Van Ronk said. When she spoke of her songs—blues, spirituals, ballads, and work songs, most of them traditional—she explained where they came from, who had taught them to her, and asserted in wonder the strength and determination of her predecessors.

Perhaps she heard something of this wonder in the landscape of Dylan’s songs—where outcasts, prisoners, and betrayed lovers are delivered and redeemed in verse. A political kinship, too, perhaps—both singers had stood beside Martin Luther King, Jr., and sung songs of freedom in the 1963 March on Washington. Dylan was widely seen as both a culmination of the movement and the architect of its future. But to whatever extent Odetta Sings Dylan addresses the inherent rapport between songwriter and interpreter, it was also—even primarily—the manifestation of a mutually advantageous commercial scheme intended to enhance the value of both performers.

Odetta and Dylan shared a manager, Albert Grossman, the respected and feared impresario who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and christened three unknown coffeehouse singers as Peter, Paul and Mary. The album was likely part of his strategy to establish Dylan as a songwriter of broad influence by getting as many musicians as possible to record his songs (including the chart-topping Peter, Paul and Mary). Odetta, who had begun her career in showbusiness, knew she would benefit from Dylan’s appeal to younger audiences. Her good standing among purists, meanwhile, would bolster Dylan’s reputation in the folk community at a moment when he was being criticized for writing songs that were too inward-looking. This would strengthen his position as a folk performer and widen the reach and influence of his publishing canon, for more than half the songs on Odetta’s album had not yet appeared on his own records.

Folksingers aren’t supposed to be autonomous actors. As conduits of tradition, they don’t invent; they channel. And they do so in accord—articulating as a collective that which eludes (or is overlooked by) individualistic expression. They are said to speak on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced by history because they are part of a decentralized broadcast mechanism that prevents any one voice from becoming powerful enough to overshadow or distort the pronouncement of the group. When Dylan’s songs became part of the greater folk repertoire, this mechanism continued to function more or less as it had. But commercialization and mass production—once considered antithetical to folk expression—had expanded its reach and changed the understanding of the group it served. The folk had become an all-inclusive, classless entity, and, in the process, the potency of its marginalized voices was diluted.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the designation of folk was applied from outside the tradition. Inherent to the process of collecting folk songs and folklore is the perspective of an educated upper class that must travel from city or town to the “field” where the so-called lower, uneducated classes live and work. Truth and beauty are sought in the imagination of a strange and other people, an elsewhere beyond the limits of the cultivated individual mind. Béla Bartók traverses the Carpathian Basin with recording equipment and integrates the peasant songs he finds into the language of modern European chamber music. John Lomax brings Huddie Ledbetter—better known as “Leadbelly,” formerly an inmate of the Louisiana State Penitentiary—to perform at New York society parties. Cultural specimens presumably uncontaminated by the forces of mass production and commercialization, folk artists are studied and admired by those members of the dominant class who are anxious about the consequences of industrialization. Yet as the advances of radio and film create among their audiences a new sensory-based connection to faraway people and places (extending the influence of industrialized culture to every untouched corner of earth), those who once considered the songs of peasants and prisoners exotic would gradually begin to hear them as products of their own tradition.

By the time Odetta was studying German opera as a teenager in the early 1940s, through money she earned in a button factory and as a housekeeper, American singers from working- and upper-middle-class backgrounds were identifying themselves as folk musicians, performing songs professionally that, at the beginning of the century, their audiences would have considered uncouth and dull. The spiritual, the railroad song, and the banjo became symbols of a mythic pan-American folk experience that bound historically marginalized groups to the narrative of Manifest Destiny. When the United States entered World War II, the folk songs of its former slaves served to distinguish it from Europe and the class-based lineage of high art—for in folk music, at least, America had transcended the ethnic, regional, and class divisions that gave rise to the Third Reich.

The discrepancy between this image and reality became obvious in the Civil Rights Era, and singers—both black (Odetta) and white (Dylan)—were transformed into fraught symbols of a nation yearning for the integration it had imagined but not achieved. The myth of a unified American folk dissolved into conflict and hypocrisy. Mistrust and isolation followed, taking the form in song of outlaws and betrayed lovers who, unlike the outlaws and lovers in older songs, were not understood as representatives of a marginalized class but as instances of contempt for authority and of a pervasive and existential loneliness.

Odetta Sings Dylan exists at the threshold of this divergence in the folk continuum. Released in January 1965, the same month Dylan set down the first of the “electric” recordings that would estrange him from the folk scene and enshrine him as a pop icon, Odetta’s record is a truly Janus-like achievement, looking forward to a new Dylan sound driven by riff-heavy guitars (guitarist Bruce Langhorne appears on the Odetta album as well asBringing It All Back Home) even as it trains its gaze on his most folk-inspired material.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” for instance, come back-to-back and, together, represent (very) loose variations on the traditional “Easy Rider,” an old blues lament sung from the perspective of a jilted lover. A version of “Easy Rider” on Odetta’s first solo album mixes lyrics from different traditional sources and, with her strumming guitar and steam-whistle wail, emulates the sound of an outbound train—a crude metaphor for the singer’s lost love. It lacks the psychological depth and ambiguity of either of Dylan’s songs, which contain metaphors, rather than function as them, and imagine the possibility of deliverance for the brokenhearted. In Odetta’s hands, Dylan, through this pair of songs, explored either side of grief and came to an understanding of both those who move on and the ones they leave behind. Nine months later, this empathy vanished in the shadow of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a blustering tirade in which Dylan would look down on the lonely, sneer the word “you,” and ask them—the outcasts—how it feels to be lost.

None of the songs on Odetta Sings Dylan—including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” one of Dylan’s first to feature electric guitar—would alienate the folk community as much as “Like a Rolling Stone,” and when Odetta passed away in December 2008, though she had gone on to record pop songs and jazz, her legacy as a folksinger was secure—folk is loyal to its interpreters and their material. It keeps whichever songs it wants, regardless of origin, but reserves the right to banish their authors to the purgatory forever outside tradition.