Christmas Spirituals is the name of two albums recorded by the American folk singer Odetta. The first was released in 1960 on Vanguard Records.
Odetta’s husky voice is often stunning, both in her a cappella performances and her songs with accompaniment. She says these songs are traditional spirituals, neither purely African nor American, but songs that emerged from the sufferings of slavery. Powerful stuff. (by Dennis MacDonald)
Odetta is an artist whose career really thumbs its nose to all cultural essentialists out there. Born in the American South, grown up in California, yet with a fan base mosly in the North-East. Trained as a contralto opera singer in the Marian Anderson mould – that vibrato could come from nowhere else – yet ending up in folk music, a genre obsessed with vocal simplicity. A proud sophisticate in a movement where African-Americans were almost universally coerced into fake primitiveness. A world-wide star with a huge black middle-class fanbase (Rosa Parks was supposedly her “number one fan”) singing in a genre constructed afterwards as particularly white-oriented. Odetta, through sheer force of will, defied easy categorisation.
When she tackles the treasury of African-American Christmas spirituals it sounds nothing like anyone else, such is her power. At its best, it’s equally far from the musical theatre operatics of Marian Anderson as it from traditionally sung spiritual styles. Accompanied by nothing more than double bass – sometimes bowed – and on most songs by an acoustic guitar, her voice veers through an impressive range of pitches and expressions. She sounds like an opera singer one moment, a gospel singer the next, a folk-pop singer sometimes, conciously evading settling in either.
Consistently, Odetta has a distinct, distinguished calm. In a way, it’s easy to see why Martin Luther King praised her above almost all other artists; their vocal convictions are similar, though filtered though entirely different prosody. She delivers Christmas music as though it were a political speech. And perhaps these songs, once sung in covert resistence to oppression, are entirely suitable to being sung that way.
Odetta renders classics like “Go Tell it On The Mountain” entirely unlike anyone else. And yet, it all sounds completely natural, as if these songs were made to sound like this, through perfect conviction. It’s an exhilirating experience. (by Johan Palme)
Odetta Gordon recorded this collection of songs in 1960, and at the time it was touted as recordings of “traditional negro spirituals,” but in the liner notes she said that they were Christmas spirituals that “…could not have happened in Africa alone, or in the United States alone. They are the result of the experience of slavery.” Her throaty voice carries both the weight of oppression and the heavy, reverent love for the birth of Jesus Christ. Her rich and emotional vocals are accompanied by sparse bass and percussion. (by Eric Shea)
Bill Lee (bass)
Odetta (vocals, guitar)
01. Rise up, Shepherd, And Follow 1.42
02. What Month Was Jesus Born In? 2.25
03. Mary Had A Baby 1.50
04. Somebody Talking ‘Bout Jesus 2.03
05. Virgin Mary Had One Son 3.07
06. Go Tell It On The Mountain 2.30
07. Shout For Joy 1.57
08. Poor Little Jesus 2.49
09. O Jerusalem 3.15
10. Ain’t That A-Rockin’ 2.01
11. If Anybody Asks You 2.53
12. Beautiful Star 2.46
13. Children Go Where I Send Thee 1.59
All songs: Traditional
Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008)