JUDY RODERICK Woman Blue (Vanguard)

Judy Roderick was a white lady from the American Midwest who, in the early 1960s, released two acoustic blues albums. The first, “Ain’t Nothing But The Blues”, was recorded by a Columbia seemingly perplexed at how best to present the artist, and a second album for the label remains unreleased, effectively disowned by Roderick. Finding a more sympathetic home at Vanguard, then also Joan Baez’s label and the official documentarians of the Newport Folk Festival, in 1965 she made “Woman Blue”, considered to be one of the finest acoustic albums of its time.

We’re not dealing with the utmost in gritty, dues-paying authenticity here, of course. Roderick’s voice possesses a measure of Judy Collins’ chiming clarity, and perhaps because of this there’s a shiver of affectation when she ungrammatically sings “You was” instead of “You were” on “Someone To Talk My Troubles To”, but it’s a minor blemish on the face of this gentle tangle of guitars. “Born In The Country” is a finer thing; unhurried but determined, Judy brings a proto-feminist backbone to this traditional tune: “I was born in the country, you thought I was easy to rule/Times are changing, babe, this country gal ain’t anybody’s fool”.

Guitarist Artie Traum deploys voltage for the first time during “Rock Me Baby (Rockin’ And Rollin’)”; nobody yells “Judas!”. Slow, sparse, smoky and sensual, Roderick’s vocal smoulders with euphemism. On “Walkin’ Slow Behind You” the jaunty ragtime melody sits disarmingly with the vitriolic, threatening lyric, and “Young Girl’s Dream” evokes Janis Joplin, whom Roderick met in 1962 when they were both singing at the same San Francisco coffee house.

“Country Girl Blues” is rearranged from a Jack Teagarden recording. There’s no subservience here: her man done her wrong, but now she’s equipped. “Next time I’m in town again I’ll wear a suit of armour/From the top of my head to my shoes/So no other city boy can fool a sentimental farm girl/And leave her with the country girl blues”. Unfortunately, all these fledgling steps towards empowerment are rather undermined by Jon Hendricks’ somewhat misleadingly titled “Contemporary Blues”, which opens with the less than progressive plea: “Show me a man that I can love and a house I can call home/I’d feed him three meals daily/I’d give him no reason to roam”.

Although rooted in the blues tradition, a variety of 20th century genres, including jazz, folk and ragtime course through the album in Roderick’s precisely picked but slightly remote, antiseptic style, songs by Fats Waller and Ian & Sylvia nestling snugly next to each other. The latter – “You Were On My Mind” – is stately and cautious but sung with gusto; you can trace the faintest halo of natural reverb around Roderick’s voice when she really lets rip. The title track is a version of the traditional “I Know You Rider”, a song later to be covered by The Byrds and The Grateful Dead.

For all the obvious technical proficiency on display, “Woman Blue” remains a chilly, distant listen – considering she worked predominately within a visceral, gritty genre there’s precious little sweat or salt to be heard, an accusation you could hardly level at Janis, for example.