Absolutely the Best (Fuel 2000); Absolutely the Best(Fuel 2000)

Odetta; Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee 

Absolutely the Best (Fuel 2000); Absolutely the Best(Fuel 2000)

One of my earliest music memories is of Odetta singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand." Not just that song -- Odetta singing it. God-world-hand: Odetta made the equation elementary. Every selection from Odetta's Absolutely the Best is just as fulfilling, and a similar collection from fellow "folk revivalists" Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee is almost as strong. The Absolutely the Best tag seems to be more a trademark than a claim of completeness, as the Odetta disc is pulled from only two mid-'50s albums and the Terry/McGhee tracks all come from one 1960 session, but as introductions to artists who deserve not to be forgotten, these collections are just about perfect.

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.

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