Apparently the second ever Dylan covers album after Linda Mason’s effort. It’s somewhat more credible than that one from 1964, but still, I was disappointed on playing this for the first time to hear that Odetta has what sounds like a classically-trained, clean, pure, ‘folk-soprano,’ when I was hoping for something more soulful. She only plays guitar on one track. The versions here are slow, sometimes almost painfully so. Some of the tracks had not been recorded by Dylan himself when this was released so I was unfamiliar with them when I heard it for the first time in 2008. Playing this again for reviewing purposes, close listening has revealed that it’s really only a few tracks where the choir-girl voice comes out and it’s only the painfully slow Mr. Tambourine Man that leaves the album ended on an ill-conceived note. Sometimes her soprano thing works, other times it grates. However, nowhere does it ever get as bad as Linda Mason. All Music Guide say something quite apt: “Although this is not a folk-rock album, as a result the arrangements have far more rhythm, swing, and imagination than most folk records of the era did.” This is very true, and it is for this reason that I’m giving Odetta Sings Dylan the thumbs up. Take it away, Bumstead.
Baby, I’m In The Mood For You…is brilliant. The percussion is awesome. I don’t know who’s playing and what they’re bashing but it sounds like buckets and maracas. Ah. According to the liner notes, it’s the original Tambourine Man himself, Mr. Bruce Langhorne on said instrument. This is real barnyard folkie stuff, a very catchy tune, and I like how Odetta lets her natural homespun voice out here. Dylan’s version didn’t see the light of day until Biograph in 1985. “But then again, but then again, but then again / Ohhh baby, I’m in the mood for you.” At the second last iteration of the chorus, she lets rip into a wild falsetto that sounds fantastic.
Long Ago, Far Away…is one of those ironic little numbers reminiscent of ‘With God On Our Side.’ However, this is the only song here that Dylan appears to have never actually recorded himself. It’s not available on any of his official releases. Again, this has a superb melody. The lyrics enumerate various crimes of humanity before leading to the line “One man died from a knife / One man from a gun / One man died from a broken heart… / Long ago, far away / Things like that don’t happen nowadays.” Loving it.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right…has two guitar parts; one a finger pluckin’ barnyard melody, and the other, rhythm guitar. There’s a bass in there too. It’s all crystal clear, and Odetta uses her more natural voice here which makes this version sound cool. Her phrasings are all syncopated, not necessarily Dylan’s phrasings, but they fit with her own take on the lyrics. In fact. I’m prepared to say this is so good it almost rivals the original. Odetta puts a neo-jazzy take on her vocal in parts, which reminds me a little of Van Morrison’s elastic phrasing on Astral Weeks. The plucked guitar in the left speaker is used as much percussively as it is melodically. The version goes for nearly six minutes. One of the best covers of this song I’ve heard.
Tomorrow Is A Long Time…is long, over six minutes. Again, two guitar parts, one in each speaker. It’s a love song with lots of intricate little sub-melodies, the two guitar parts makes this sound more jazzy than folk. The song is treated gently, with great respect for the lyrics. This is one of those songs Dylan didn’t record in the 60s; it finally appeared on his second greatest hits collection. Linda Mason covered this too, but Odetta rips her to shreds.
Masters of War…gets the ominous strumming just right, similar to what you hear on the Linda Mason version, only here it’s more inventive. One guitar is sort of rubbed and scratched, the other plays a repeating arpeggio in the lower registers. This is probably the first time Odetta’s soprano comes to the fore in places; it’s a voice I’m not so fond of, a bit too rich and pious for my ears. Still, unlike Linda Mason’s meek interpretation, Odetta sings this with her own sense of meaning and import, pushing her voice up against hard syllables, softening it for impact, wavering for moments of anger or disbelief; “For threatenin’ my baby / Unborn and unnamed / Oh you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins,” she sings, and it’s chilling. The instrumentation is as equally unnerving, creating a haunting atmosphere. The mix is good too. The voice is centered nicely between the crisp warm guitar lines coming from each speaker. The only disappointment is that like Mason’s sappy version, Odetta also cuts off the last two lines (“And I’ll watch while you’re lowered down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead”) from the song. Pussies.
Walkin’ Down The Line…is a Dylan song I’ve always loved. It’s a simple number with a great tune, all about being a hobo, walking along the train tracks. Odetta sings in a strong natural voice here; “My money comes and goes / And rolls and flows / And rolls and flows / Through the holes in the pockets of my clothes.” It’s quite a bit slower than Dylan’s version (which was only first made available on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 released in 1991). “I got my walkin’ shoes / And I aint gonna lose / I believe I got the walkin’ blues.” Listening to these versions closely is proving to be rewarding; the guitar playing is really beautiful, something pleasant to concentrate your listening on.
The Times They Are A-Changin’…okay, I knew the love couldn’t last. I’m not quite as fussed on this version. Odetta’s pure, church-choir voice is back. The guitar playing is stellar, but I don’t like the way she’s singing it. The vocal arrangement and high pitched vocal don’t work together; it just irritates. It’s as though she’s trying to import too much reverence into the lyrics. It’s one of Dylan’s most iconoclastic songs at this point in history, and clearly, for folkies it was an anthem, but Odetta sings it too stiffly.
With God On Our Side…employs a real groovy jazzy guitar sound which again, really reminds me of Astral Weeks. This is really pretty. Again, Odetta sings it in a horribly high choir-girl key. She does stretch the lyrics to meet her own styling and creates her own rhythmical meaning, but again, it sounds a tad too reverent in that pure-bred voice. I don’t see that this kind of singing fits with the music very well; they seem at odds. If she’d stuck with her natural voice this might have worked.
Long Time Gone…is an early demo of Dylan’s, his version only released in 2010 on the Witmark Demos boxset. It’s one of his ‘rambling’ songs, meaning roaming the country as a hobo hitchhiker. “My parents raised me tenderly / I was their only one / My mind got mixed with rambling /When I was all so young / And I left my home the first time / When I was twelve and one / Well, I’m a long time a’coming Maw / And I’ll be a long time gone.” Great choice, nice version.
Mr. Tambourine Man…this is the only track where Odetta plays rhythm guitar. She slows the song right down, and sings it ‘too’ beautifully. She’s really letting her soprano out in full force here. Add that to the slowed down rhythm and it all becomes a bit painful. Gone are the beautiful and delicate guitar parts in favour of a more bassy strummed sound. Yet, I’ve read reviews where this song is praised as the high point of the album. I don’t get that at all. I don’t see the point in singing it so slow; all she does is end up making the song go for nearly 11 minutes, and the slow pace does nothing to add any kind of gravity to the song. In fact, Dylan’s original effectuates a kind of levity in the wordplay that becomes an essential aesthetic of the performance, whereas Odetta’s version makes it sound way too serious and boring. There are places where she slows it down to a snail’s pace. I suppose if I stop comparing this to Dylan’s version, there’s something unique about it; she’s trying to make the song her own. I just don’t think the string of playful images works in this style; “In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you” or “If you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme”; look at these lyrics Odetta. No, they’re meant to be fun and carefree, not sung from the edge of the world. The stop/start, soft/loud thing starts to grate on my sensibilities halfway through the song, and there’s still five minutes to go. Bad way to end what might be one of the most interesting and unique Dylan cover albums of the sixties.
Odetta Holmes (1930-2008) was 35 when she recorded this album. Died at 77 but was still performing right up until the year of her death. She had operatic training from the age of 13. She has heaps of albums out, and Bob Dylan has said of her, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar, a flat-top Gibson. Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues was just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record.”