Folk Legends Sing The Blues

Odetta - At the Gate of Horn
Odetta – At the Gate of Horn

Odetta – At the Gate of Horn. Originally released in 1957

Leadbelly – The Legend of Leadbelly, with Sonny Terry & Josh White. Originally released in 1960

Barbara Dane – Anthology of American Folk Songs. Originally released in 1959

Ed McCurdy – A Ballad Singer’s Choice. Originally released in 1956

Anthology of the Twelve String Guitar. Originally released in 1963

All archival recordings released on Tradition/Empire and distributed by Universal, 2006

I’m a history buff who relishes nostalgia so exploring these 5 folk-blues CDs gladdens my heart. Although I will admit that I did not grow up with Odetta, Leadbelly, Barbara Dane or Ed McCurdy playing in the home. However, I fare better listening to the Anthology of the Twelve String Guitar since Glenn Campbell and Roger MCGuinn of The Byrds’ fame ring bells with me.

Well, better late than never. I’m glad that Empire Records has dusted off these gems, not only to show us where we have been musically, but also to remind us of our collective history. For instance, in an era of political correctness, blues legend, Leadbelly’s repertoire, especially, the song, Yellow Gal, comes as a bit of a shock to my ears. We can see how far we have come in respecting others of different races and backgrounds.

By far, Odetta’s landmark album, At the Gate of Horn is my favorite of the 5 CDs. Considered one of the cornerstones of American folk music in the 1950’s, Odettaactually hailed from a classical background which you can hear in her slightly operatic contralto vocals. Sometimes dramatic and certainly powerful, Odetta journeys through blues, gospel and folk tunes, while drawing from a rich palette of emotions.

Accompanied by her fine guitar playing, Odetta opens the CD with the infamous spiritual, He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands, (which I did sing when I was a child), and then she sails through classics such as The Gallows Pole, Greensleeves, All the Pretty Horses then landing on 2 of Leadbelly’s classics, The Midnight Special and Take This Hammer.


Leadbelly - The Legend of Leadbelly
Leadbelly – The Legend of Leadbelly


The blues legend, Leadbelly needs little if any introduction. Everyone from American folkies to grunge musicians have covered Leadbelly’s repertoire. Even if people don’t recognize the name Leadbelly, they will still recognize such classics as House of the Rising Sun, The Midnight Special and Goodnight Irene.The Legend of Leadbelly feels rough around the edges as if the music is already fading into the static of the past.

While the blues-folkman certainly possessed a talent as a tunesmith and guitarist, I find his lyrics too raw and sexist. His infamous violent temper comes through on many of these tunes as does his dry sense of humor. Although I often find the blues healing, this particular CD leaves me with the chills. However, I realize that not everyone is as sensitive as I am to lyrical content and a vocalist’s views so no doubt this CD will be added to many collections.


Barbara Dane - Anthology of American Folk Songs
Barbara Dane – Anthology of American Folk Songs


I had not heard of the alto folksinger Barbara Dane until I received Anthology of American Folk Songs in the mail. Although during her time she garnered a reputation as a blues singer, on this live recording, she returned to her folk roots. Accompanied by her guitar and Tom Paley’s banjo and guitar, she shares a collection of her favorite folk tunes. Again, Greensleeves makes an appearance here and it is fun to compare her version to Odetta’s version of the song. Some standout songs include Single Girl, La Le Too Dum and the Danville Girl. The final track, Don’t Sing Love Songs ends on an ironic note. Barbara Dane might not sing love songs, but she sings songs she loves and we love her for it.


Ed McCurdy - A Ballad Singer's Choice
Ed McCurdy – A Ballad Singer’s Choice


The late Ed McCurdy also takes us on a journey through his favorite songs. American-born Canadian, he brings us songs hailing from Eastern Canada and
throughout the United States. He sings about fishermen, lovers, gold prospectors, cowboys, the courtship of birds and ends the CD with the infamous lullaby, Hush Little Baby–you know the song that mentions mockingbirds and diamond ringsā€¦

Accompanied by banjo and guitar, McCurdy’s baritone voice graces humorous and
dramatic songs. His voice takes us on a visual journey through time when people had to set out into the world to win their fortune in the dreary Black Hills or out at sea. I might have not heard McCurdy’s recordings when I was a child, but the flavor and stories of these songs sound familiar to my ears. I recall all those old country western classics that told similar stories and fueled my childhood imagination.


Anthology of the Twelve String Guitar
Anthology of the Twelve String Guitar


Finally, Anthology of the Twelve String Guitar features an array of musicians who guitar styles range from classical to blues and country western. The original liner notes that accompany the CD mention the up and coming Glenn Campbell who was considered “hot” during his reign. Mason Wilson achieved a number one hit with his Classical Gas, although that track does not appear on this CD, and Roger McGinn’s folk-rock group, the Byrds had only begun to take flight when this album was first released in 1963.

All the albums listed in this review include their original liner notes and in some cases, notes written by the artists themselves as is the case, with Odetta, Barbara Dane and Ed McCurdy. So pick up any of these CDs or all of them and take a trip down Memory Lane, as well as, preserve historic recordings by legendary blues, ballad and folksingers.

Author: PatriciaHerlevi

Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.