Absolutely the Best reveals Odetta to be the Mahalia Jackson of folk music. Spirituals such as "Glory, Glory" and "Joshua" mingle with such secular warhorses as "Midnight Special," "Easy Rider," and "Muleskinner Blues," and Odetta's river-deep near-baritone voice suddenly resurrects lyrics, bringing meaning to songs dead for decades. On the beautifully defiant "Take This Hammer" and "Another Man Done Gone," which is performed a cappella except for Odetta's own handclaps, her moan is more than enough to bring listeners to their knees, either mourning or praying -- or both.
Though not quite as emotionally powerful as Odetta's work, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee's folk-blues prove they deserve to be much more than a footnote in the Woody Guthrie saga. Terry's harmonica -- sometimes fluid, sometimes percussive as a washboard -- and McGhee's surprisingly gentle guitar work carry the duo's heartfelt versions of such songs as "Trouble in Mind" or "Blues for Gamblers." Their front-porch blues might not feel gritty enough for fans raised on traditional Delta misery, but Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Joe Williams join in for three tracks, and they're right at home. Terry and McGhee sing and play with a loose precision, making it sound easy, and that ease makes their versions of these songs stick.