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(You Will) Set The World On Fire: Bowie’s ode to Odetta

“I never liked the fruity Judy Collins and Joan Baez and all of that stuff. So the only folk music I know is about miners up in Newcastle or Dylan… I should have been born in New York, I should have been born in the Village, that’s where I belong.”

John Lennon, Rolling Stone, 1971

Unlike many of his so-called contemporaries, David Bowie was artfully inspired and engaged with all genres of music right up until the end. Bowie’s penultimate album, 2013’s surprise ‘comeback’ The Next Day, was an exhilarating example of how he always encompassed as much art as he could in his work. A progressive if musically schizophrenic character, the Dame always had one eye on pop‘s past and the other mismatched one on where music was heading, as he famously once said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming,” and words that could’ve quite easily been uttered by Bob Dylan’s voice of sand and glue.

One of The Next Day’s deeper cuts, (You Will) Set The World On Fire uses a metaphorical Tardis to whisk us back to the early 1960s and the spiritual home of folk-based counterculture, Greenwich Village, in NYC‘s Lower Manhattan. It’s where Dylan’s debut, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, album cover was shot on Jones Street, and why the Bowie track, recorded nearby, is something of a celebration of Zimmerman and his fellow progressive artists of the day.

Setting the scene, the lyrics serenade Dylan (as “Bobby”) and his fellow folk forebearers Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs after Joan Baez departs the stage in some dingy dive bar that spawned a thousand songs that set the world on fire in an illuminating sense.

But if it sounds like it‘s also sung from the point of view of being Bob, for an unrealised stage play, that‘s probably because it is.

This song itself is all gasoline and guitar riffs (kinda like a Never Let Me Down outtake double-dosed on Sanatogen), though if you can excuse its testosterone-fulled heavy-handedness, the lyrics are a story certainly worthy of closer inspection. The cloaked line, for instance, “When the black girl and guitar, burn together in hot rage,” is unmistakably a nod to Odetta Holmes, the Afro-American singer-guitarist who helped to start the whole Greenwich movement in the first place. There’s more eulogising with “You’re in the boat, babe,” the Englishman raves, “we’re in the wat-aah!

Odetta‘s buoyant, powerful alto and direct delivery led to her being crowned the “queen of American folk music,” and she influenced everyone from Janis Joplin and Mavis Staples to Nick Cave and Joan Armatrading, to name but a few. Not to mention inspiring Dylan’s early decision to trade his electric guitar for an acoustic.

Trained in opera and raised on folk, Odetta’s prowess was as rooted in her voice’s force and resolve as it was in her interpretative skill, which forced listeners to pay close attention to every syllable that she sang, whether she was tackling jazz, the blues, or even more rock-pop fare, such as the 1970 album Odetta Sings, which featured re-imaginings of tunes by Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, the Rolling Stones and others. 

“Few … possess that fine understanding of a song’s meaning which transforms it from a melody into a dramatic experience,” her fellow activist and friend Harry Belafonte wrote in the liner notes for her 1959 album My Eyes Have Seen. 

Forty years later, on September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton, who first saw her perform on the Dinner With The President television special with President Kennedy in 1963, presented to Odetta the Medal of the Arts award from the National Endowment For The Arts.

After Barack Obama’s victory in the November 2008 elections, she was the first artist selected to perform at his inauguration, which sadly she didn’t get to witness.

Despite increasing ill health, Odetta remained at the forefront of the civil rights movement and stood as a totem for equality throughout her life, which sadly came to its conclusion on December 2, 2008, in New York City, at the age of 77.

“I can hear the nation cry” seems somehow poetic yet woefullyunderstated.

It’s a funny old world.

Steve Pafford

Odetta Gordon, née Holmes, born December 31, 1930, Birmingham, Alabama; died December 2, 2008, NYC, New York

Skyline, passion: the story of Q Dylan and Bob’s 50th Anniversary Collection 1969 is here

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