While Odetta is usually lumped in with other revival artists, she actually began performing in the late '40s and had recorded her first album by 1956, a couple of years before the folk boom started. Her stripped-down style and powerful vocals also differed markedly from many revival practitioners, reminding one more of Leadbelly than Joan Baez. This connection is strengthened by the inclusion of pieces like "Midnight Special" and "Take This Hammer" in her repertoire. The Tradition Masters reissues Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957) in a two-disc set, providing an excellent overview of Odetta's early work. Both sets are fairly straightforward, with her vocals supported by her persistent guitar strum on Sings Ballads and Blues and the addition of Bill Lee's bass on At the Gate of Horn. The most important element, though, is always Odetta's resonant vocals. Whether singing blues, spirituals, or straight folk, she delivers the lyrics with religious fever, as though she inhabited the words. Her approach also invigorates familiar fare like "Greensleeves" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," reminding the listener how good these songs are. It's also illustrative to compare her deep-interpretive approach to a lullaby like "Pretty Horses" with later, "sweetened" versions of the song by groups like Peter, Paul & Mary. The Tradition Masters is a good place to immerse oneself in Odetta's authoritative versions of classic folk material. Old fans, unfamiliar with her early music, will likewise want to pick up a copy.
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AllMusic Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2