The Best of Odetta: Ballads & Blues (previously released under the name The Best of Odetta) sets a standard with its title that it is unable to meet, even though the material the album contains is valuable. It would be difficult to assemble a true Odetta best-of, because the folksinger's recordings, which, paralleling the folk boom, were extensive from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s and have been sparse since, and covered the labels Fantasy (1954-1955), Tradition (1956-1957), Vanguard (1959-1962 with releases continuing into 1963), Riverside (1962), RCA Victor (1962-1965), Verve Folkways (1966-1967), and Polydor (1970). Despite numerous catalog acquisitions and company mergers, these recordings still resided with several different competing companies as of 1994. But the concern here is solely the Tradition material, which consists of a total of 31 tracks that originated on two albums, Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957). Tradition was a small folk label founded by Patrick Clancy of the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. Odetta's Tradition recordings have been repackaged many times since Clancy sold the label to Everest Records in the '60s. The Best of Odetta: Ballads & Blues is yet another reissue of the same material, an 18-track disc excerpting nine tracks from At the Gate of Horn followed by nine from Sings Ballads and Blues. On it, an Odetta in her mid-twenties gives mesmerizing performances of traditional folk and blues standards in her trademark contralto, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar or singing a cappella. (Bill Lee plays bass on the tracks from At the Gate of Horn.) These are good performances, and any folk fan should have some version of the Tradition recordings. But the album's title makes a promise the music itself does not keep.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann