Highly influential and respected, Odetta Holmes (1930-2008) made her mark during the revival of folk music in the late fifties and early sixties, her style containing elements of the blues and spirituals of the South.
She was active in the American Civil Rights Movement and gave a classic performance of “O Freedom” at the famous March On Washington D.C. in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her “The Queen Of American Folk Music.” She also received honors from presidents over the years until her death, at age 77, shortly before her anticipated scheduled performance at President Obama’s inauguration.
Beautiful Star is a reissue of a re-recorded album. In 1988 she went into the studio for the first time in fifteen years to record the songs she had released two decades previously on the Vanguard label. The resulting Christmas Spirituals has long been out of print so it is nice to see it return with a new name and a wonderful, clear sound due to modern technology.
The star of the album is her contralto vocals, which have passion, soulfulness and depth. When Odetta takes center stage, whether live or on record, she is a preacher transmitting an emotional message.
The instrumental backing here is minimal. Acoustic-string bassists Bill Lee and Lincoln Goines, percussionist Carol Steele, and drummer Jeff Salisbury (who uses only a snare and brushes) support her acoustic-guitar playing. Many of the tracks contain only a muted use of brushes and bass, setting the rhythms for her vocals as they powerfully soar above.
The album's original title, Christmas Spirituals, is probably an accurate description of the music and intent of the release. And while it may contain traditional music, it is not a traditional Christmas album. Rather than telling the story of Christmas, the music instead invokes its spirit. Songs such as “Rise Up Shepherd And Follow,” “What Month Was Jesus Born In,” “Shout For Joy,” “If Anybody Asks You,” and “Ain’t That A-Rockin’” take the listener to Africa, the cathedral, and the plantations of the South.
Odetta returns to her folk roots with a powerful version of “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” The album closer, “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” is a complete sermon in about three minutes.
Beautiful Star is a nice look at an elegant artist who shall not pass this way again.