I pressed ‘Play’ on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Waterboy by Rhiannon Giddens.
A few weeks ago, my friend Adam and I went to a Folk Music In New York City exhibit at the Museum Of The City Of New York. It was actually the very last day of the exhibit but I am sure glad Adam persuaded me to go to see it. There was lots of great memorabilia from both the pre-WW II folk scene of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, through to the folk revival of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that introduced people like Bob Dylan and Odetta to the scene. I think I may have first encountered her name in my early days of music exploration in college, when she was mentioned in one of Maya Angelou’s books. At the museum exhibit her name cropped up repeatedly. In the full size glass cases there was memorabilia from people one might expect like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly. But for some reason the case I stopped in front of and really took in was the one devoted to Odetta. There was just something about that fantastic outfit, and the beautiful wood paneled guitar together with that intense face of concentration in the photo that compelled me.
Even without knowing much from her catalog I have to admit, she had one of those voices that just stops you dead in your tracks when you hear it. Bob Dylan himself said that hearing her sing was the pivotal point in making him trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic. Others like Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte spoke highly of her as well. Martin Luther King Jr called her the “Queen of American Folk Music.” Odetta was also an actress and a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 60’s. So as I stood there in front of that museum case I thought for a few moments about what singers today carry on that sort of legacy. I am really happy this song came up on my Ipod shuffle because it reminded that the torch has indeed been passed on to singers like the wonderful Rhiannon Giddens.
I became aware of Rhiannon a few years ago when I read an article about up and coming folk artists, which included a band she is a member of, the Grammy Award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their primary influence was drawn from the nearly forgotten traditions of African-American string bands, and they were mentored early on by Joe Thompson, who was said to be the last from that tradition still left. Gradually their repertoire expanded and began taking on elements of blues, jazz, country and even pop songs (do listen to their cover of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ’em Up Style). The music is skillfully played on a variety of instruments. In addition to her singing Rhiannon is a great fiddle, banjo and kazoo player, to name just a few of her instruments! In the last 2 years or so she has branched out with a number of other projects including being part of The New Basement Tapes project together with Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford among others. Last year at this time she released her first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, which has itself been nominated for an upcoming Grammy Award. It is an album of some of Rhiannon’s own influences, and contains songs from Dolly Parton, Sister Rossetta Tharpe, and even Charles Aznavour. But perhaps my favorite is the work-song inspired ‘Waterboy’ which was a staple of Odetta’s repertoire.
As Rhiannon points out in the sleeve notes, both she and Odetta both were classically trained singers, and “it was great to be able to let my throat loose”. Which is no wonder, because both Odetta and Rhiannon perform it with a fierceness and power that grabs your attention within the first few notes. Even though it was Rhiannon’s version that came up on my shuffle today, I’m including clips from both women here. Music always has a push/pull between influence and innovation. You need the influences to get you started. You need the innovation to drive you forward into new areas. So what Odetta sang in her long and varied career influences singers like Rhiannon Giddens, who will inevitably take it and inspire future generations. The cycle continues.
Waterboy-Written By Jacques Wolfe
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
*Photo Shuffle is a new, very short slice of my regular blogs based on setting my Ipod on shuffle and matching up one of my photographs to whatever comes up.