The songs that populate Odetta and the Blues are 1920s blues and jazz standards sung by the likes of Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt, Leroy Carr and other titans of the time and genre. Most are traditional, unattributable to any one songwriter — but all are linked to Black musicians. In this way, the album feels like an important (and understandable) aspect of Odetta’s quest to show America the myriad ways this country’s music wouldn’t be what it is without Black Americans.
Odetta makes each track sound timeless and true, but also utterly, entirely her own. I think that’s the hallmark of a true and truly unique talent — and a sign that the artist in question understands the assignment, as it were: to find the throughlines between their perspective and the art itself; to preserve the original message and add one of your own, like a constructive game of Telephone. There’s an art to being a cover artist and an art to being an archivist.