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Odetta

Category: Musician or composer

 

Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008), known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, a lifelong civil and human rights activist, and one of "The Voices of the Civil Rights Movement".

Even in 2006, two years before she died, Odetta was still campaigning against injustices.  She was presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference.

Many Americans remember her performance at the 1963 civil rights movement's March on Washington where she sang "O Freedom." She considered her involvement in the Civil Rights movement as being "one of the privates in a very big army."  In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. called her "The Queen of American folk music".

 

Her musical repertoire consisted largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she influenced many of the key figures of the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin.

On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honoured at the Kennedy Centre with the "Visionary Award" along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress honoured her with its "Living Legend Award".

In December 2006, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honoured Odetta with their "Lifetime Achievement Award". In February 2007, the International Folk Alliance named Odetta the "Traditional Folk Artist of the Year".

Spirituality


 
 

Odetta had very strong faith in the spiritual world, which directed her day to day actions and the music she sang and wrote.  She refers a number of times to this realm as ‘Spirit’, for example in one video where she is describing the need to continually inspire civil rights workers she says that “They need to be encouraged and reminded of spirit”.

 In May 1975 she appeared on public television's Say Brother program.  She performed "Give Me Your Hand" in the studio, but also spoke about her spirituality, the music tradition from which she drew, and her involvement in civil rights struggles.

Odetta also recorded a great number of spirituals, for example, a new version of Christmas Spirituals, produced in 1988 and the 2007 Grammy-nominated Gonna Let It Shine,  a live album of gospel and spiritual songs supported by Seth Farber and The Holmes Brothers. In 2007, only a year before she died, she completed a major Fall Concert Tour in the "Songs of Spirit" show.

One of the fascinating aspects that emerge from the interviews with Odetta is that she used music to redirect the anger, resentment and hatred for the injustices done to her people at the time into something productive.  In other words, she turned negative [but justified] emotions into positive creativity, whether it was in her singing or her songs.

Life

Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles, and studied music at Los Angeles City College. She had operatic training from the age of 13. Her first professional experience was in musical theatre in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre. In 1949, she joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow.  While on tour with Finian's Rainbow, Odetta "fell in with an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco", and after 1950 concentrated on folk-singing.

 

She then further made her name by playing in nightclubs around the United States - the Blue Angel nightclub (New York City), the hungry i (San Francisco), and Tin Angel (San Francisco), making a number of albums both as a solo singer and with others such as Larry Mohr, and appearing on TV with singers such as Harry Belafonte.  Odetta also acted in several films during this period, including Cinerama Holiday (1955), the film of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).  Later in her life she did a lot of touring.

Her marriages to Dan Gordon and Gary Shead ended in divorce. Singer-guitarist Louisiana Red was a former companion.  But her life was as much governed by her friendships as her partners.  The CD To Ella (recorded live) was dedicated to her friend Ella Fitzgerald.  Her friends included Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, and Joan Baez.  Maya Angelou said about her  "If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta's would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time".

She was a brave lady.  In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched a North American tour, where she sang from a wheelchair.  Her last big concert, before thousands of people, was in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

In November 2008, Odetta's health began to decline and she began receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009, but on December 2, 2008, she died from heart disease in New York City.  But at least she saw that her efforts had paid dividends, America’s first black president.

Her legacy

There is the sense in all that she did that Odetta lived to help others.  She helped singer songwriters to become better known by singing and recording their songs.  The 2005 documentary film No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, for example, highlights her musical influence on Bob Dylan.  At the time Odetta sang Bob’s songs he had only just started out and was still very young:

The rough edge of Dylan's singing was unsettling to some but an attraction to others. Joyce Carol Oates wrote: "When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying." Many early songs reached the public through more palatable versions by other performers.

 

She even kept the name of those who had died alive by paying tribute to them.  For example,  The Blues Everywhere I Go was a 2000 Grammy-nominated blues/jazz band tribute album to the great lady blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s; Looking for a Home, was a 2002 W.C. Handy Award-nominated band tribute to Lead Belly. 

Odetta had a great influence on many aspiring musicians simply because she was friendly and approachable.  As one young commentator said:  “her voice is kinda comforting”, and indeed it was. Yet another said that:

I was lucky enough meet her in the year before she died. She was gracious and inspiring and wanted to know about me (!) and my life inspired by folk music. She was so beautiful and strong and humble til the end. A real lover of real people and our ability to do amazing things!

 

References

Interviews

Songs

A number of the songs included here are from the album Odetta Sings Dylan issued by RCA Victor in 1965. It consists of covers of Bob Dylan songs, as such we could have placed them under Bob Dylan.  But Odetta was a Civil rights activist and used music to “do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.” Both Odetta and Bob Dylan sang at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington DC.  As such, she understood Dylan’s songs and brings a special intensity and clarity to them.

Bob Dylan’s songs "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin’" were anthems of the civil rights movement.  The two songs "With God on Our Side" and "Masters of War" were longer, bitter anti-war songs.

It is noteworthy that Odetta’s choice included love songs written by Bob Dylan, as well as the protest songs, providing a contrast between depictions of  ‘love’ and protest against ‘hate’.  Marked [*] are bonus tracks, on the 2000 CD edition

  1. "Baby, I'm in the Mood for You" – 2:50
  2. "Long Ago, Far Away" – 2:50
  3. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" – 5:42
  4. "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" – 6:20
  5. "Masters of War" – 6:18
  6. "Walkin' Down the Line" – 4:01
  7. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" – 4:39
  8. "With God on Our Side" – 5:13
  9. "Long Time Gone" – 3:44
  10. "Mr. Tambourine Man" – 10:44
  11. "Blowin' in the Wind" – 4:11 [*]
  12. "Paths of Victory" – 2:24 [*]

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