Odetta Holmes Dies at 77; Folk Singer Championed Black History, Civil Rights
Published on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 by The Los Angeles Times
by Randy Lewis and Mike Boehm
Odetta, the classically trained folk, blues and gospel singer who
used her powerfully rich and dusky voice to champion African American
music and civil rights issues for more than half a century starting
in the folk revival of the 1950s, has died. She was 77.
She was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City for a
checkup in mid-November but went into kidney failure. She died there
Tuesday of heart disease, her manager, Doug Yeager, told the Associated Press.
With a repertoire that included 19th century slave songs and
spirituals as well as the topical ballads of such 20th century folk
icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Odetta became one of the most
beloved figures in folk music.
She was said to have influenced the emergence of artists as varied as
Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman.
"The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta," Dylan
once said. "From Odetta, I went to Harry Belafonte, the Kingston
Trio, little by little uncovering more as I went along."
Her affinity for traditional African American folk songs was a
hallmark of her long career, along with a voice that could easily
sweep from dark, husky low notes to delicate yet goose bump-inducing
high register tones.
"The first time I heard Odetta sing," Seeger once said, "she sang
Leadbelly's 'Take This Hammer' and I went and told her how I wish
Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her."
She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930. Her
father died when she was young and she moved to Los Angeles at age 6
with her mother, sister and stepfather. She took the surname of her
stepfather Zadock Felious, but throughout her career she used just
her given name.
And although Los Angeles wasn't as overtly racist as the Deep South,
she suffered some of the same indignities that came with being black.
"We lived within walking distance of Marshall High School," Odetta
told The Times some years ago, "but they didn't let colored people go
there, so we had to get on the bus and go to Belmont High School."
She attended Los Angeles City College after high school and earned a
degree in music.
Trained as a classical vocalist as a child, she won a spot with a
group called the Madrigal Singers in junior high school. She also
realized early that despite her classical training, her options in
that area were going to be limited because of the racism at the time.
By 19, Odetta had turned her attention to other forms of music and
landed a part in a production of "Finian's Rainbow" as a chorus
member. When the musical went on the road to San Francisco, she went with it.
The trip marked an important crossroads in her emergence as a folk singer.
She met an old friend from school who had settled in the city's North
Beach neighborhood, and during a visit Odetta was exposed to a
late-night session of folk songs.
"That night I heard hours and hours of songs that really touched
where I live," she told The Times. "I borrowed a guitar and learned
three chords, and started to sing at parties."
The traditional prison songs that she learned in her early days hit
home the hardest and helped her come to terms with what she called
the deep-seated hate and fury in her.
"As I did those songs, I could work on my hate and fury without being
antisocial," she recalled. "Through those songs, I learned things
about the history of black people in this country that the historians
in school had not been willing to tell us about or had lied about."
Odetta left the theater company in 1950 and took a job at a folk club
in San Francisco. She soon began to tour and recorded her first
album, "The Tin Angel," in 1954. She soon caught the attention of
such folk-music icons as Guthrie, Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
She was a fixture on the folk music scene by the time the genre's
commercial boom came in the late 1950s and early '60s.
She played at the Newport Folk Festival, the showcase event for folk
music, four times between 1959 and 1965. She also had a recording
contract with Vanguard Records, which at the height of the folk music
craze was the genre's leading label.
Over the years, Odetta branched into acting, with dramatic and
singing roles in film and television including "Cinerama Holiday,"
"Sanctuary" and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."
But traditional folk music remained her forte.
"The folk repertoire is our inheritance. Don't have to like it, but
we need to hear it," she said. "I love getting to schools and telling
kids there's something else out there. It's from their forebears, and
its an alternative to what they hear on the radio. As long as I am
performing, I will be pointing out that heritage that is ours."
In 1999, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President
Clinton. In 2004, she was a Kennedy Center honoree. A year later, the
Library of Congress honored her with its Living Legend Award.
Information on survivors and funeral services was not immediately available.
Odetta, voice of American civil rights movement, dies at 77
By Tim Weiner
Published: December 3, 2008
Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the strongest songs
of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died Tuesday. She was 77.
The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager.
He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration.
Odetta she was born Odetta Holmes sang at coffeehouses and
Carnegie Hall and released several albums, becoming one of the most
widely known and influential folk-music artists of the 1950s and 60s.
Her voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white images of the
freedom marchers who walked the roads of Alabama and Mississippi and
the boulevards of Washington in quest of an end to racial discrimination.
Rosa Parks, the woman who started the boycott of segregated buses in
Montgomery, Alabama, was once asked which songs meant the most to
her. She replied, "All of the songs Odetta sings."
Odetta sang at the August 1963 march on Washington, a pivotal event
in the civil rights movement. Her song that day was "O Freedom,"
dating back to slavery days.
Born in Birmingham on Dec. 31, 1930, Odetta Holmes spent her first
six years in the depths of the Depression. The music of that time and
place in particular prison song and work songs recorded in the
fields of the deep South shaped her life.
"They were liberation songs," she said in a videotaped interview with
The New York Times in 2007, for its online feature "The Last Word."
"You're walking down life's road, society's foot is on your throat,
every which way you turn you can't get from under that foot. And you
reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or
insist upon your life."
Her father, Reuben Holmes, died when she was young; she and her
mother, Flora Sanders, who later remarried, moved to Los Angeles in
1937. Three years later, Odetta discovered she could sing.
"A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe I should
study," she recalled. "But I myself didn't have anything to measure it by."
She found her own voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music
from the African-American and Anglo-American traditions. She earned a
music degree from Los Angeles City College. Her training in classical
music and musical theater was "a nice exercise, but it had nothing to
do with my life," she said.
"The folk songs were the anger," she emphasized.
In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: "School taught
me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as
far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music."
In 1950, Odetta began singing professionally in a West Coast
production of the musical "Finian's Rainbow," but she found a
stronger calling in the bohemian coffeehouses of San Francisco. "We
would finish our play, we'd go to the joint, and people would sit
around playing guitars and singing songs and it felt like home," she
said in the 2007 interview with The Times.
She began singing in nightclubs, cutting a striking figure with her
guitar and her close-cropped hair. (She noted late in life that she
was one of the first black performers in the United States to wear an
"Afro" hairstyle "they used to call it 'the Odetta,' " she said.)
Her voice plunged deep and soared high, and her songs blended the
personal and the political, the theatrical and the spiritual. Her
first solo album, "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues," resonated with an
audience hearing old songs made new.
"The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta," Bob
Dylan said, referring to that record, in a 1978 interview with
Playboy . He said he heard "something vital and personal. I learned
all the songs on that record." It was her first, and the songs were
"Mule Skinner," "Jack of Diamonds," "Water Boy," " 'Buked and Scorned."
Her blues and spirituals led directly to her work for the
civil-rights movement. They were two rivers running together, she
said in her interview with The Times. The words and music captured
"the fury and frustration that I had growing up." They were heard by
the people who were present at the creation of the civil rights
movement, people who "heard on the grapevine about this lady who was
singing these songs." She played countless benefits; the money she
raised underwrote the work of keeping the movement alive.
Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with Martin Luther King
in Selma and performed for President John F. Kennedy. But after King
was assassinated in 1968, the wind went out of the sails of the
civil-rights movement and the songs of protest and resistance that
had been the movement's soundtrack. Odetta's fame flagged for years
thereafter. She recorded fewer records, although she performed on
stage as a singer and an actor, during the 1970s and 1980s. She
revived her career in the 1990s, and thereafter appeared regularly on
"A Prairie Home Companion," the popular public-radio show. In 1999
she recorded her first album in 14 years, and that year President
Bill Clinton awarded her the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of
the Arts and Humanities from. In 2003 she received a "Living Legend"
tribute from the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center Visionary Award.
Odetta was married three times: to Don Gordon, to Gary Shead, and, in
1977, to the blues musician Iverson Minter, known professionally as
Louisiana Red. The first marriages ended in divorce; Minter moved to
Germany in 1983 to pursue his performing career.
She was singing and performing well into the 21st century, and her
influence stayed strong through the decades.
In April 2007, half a century after Dylan heard her, she was onstage
at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce Springsteen. She turned one of
his songs, "57 Channels," into a chanted poem, and Springsteen came
out from the wings to call it "the greatest version" of the song he
had ever heard.
Reviewing a December 2006 performance, James Reed of the Boston Globe
wrote: "Odetta's voice is still a force of nature something
commented upon endlessly as folks exited the auditorium and her
phrasing and sensibility for a song have grown more complex and shaded."
The critic called her "a majestic figure in American music, a direct
gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today."
Odetta: 'Folk royalty' with valley ties has died
By John W. Barry
December 4, 2008
Odetta, the folk singer with the powerful voice who moved audiences
and influenced fellow musicians for a half-century, has died. She was 77.
Odetta, who had many links to the Hudson Valley, died Tuesday of
heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital, said Doug Yeager, her manager
of 12 years. She was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure
about three weeks ago, he said.
In spite of failing health that caused her to use a wheelchair,
Odetta performed 60 concerts in the last two years, singing for 90
minutes at a time. Her singing ability never diminished, Yeager said.
Odetta, a contemporary and peer of Fishkill resident and folk singing
icon Pete Seeger, performed in September at the Hudson River Arts
Festival at Waryas Park in Poughkeepsie and in April, with Seeger at
a benefit for Clearwater, the Poughkeepsie-based environmental
organization, held at Beacon High School.
Seeger said during an interview with the Journal Wednesday he heard
Woody Guthrie sing for the last time, and Odetta for the first time,
at a party north of Los Angeles in 1950, during a song circle.
Odetta sat silent in a corner of the room, Seeger said, until she was
coaxed into singing. She delivered a stunning rendition of
Leadbelly's "Take This Hammer."
"It was so magnificent," Seeger said. "We were stunned. I went up to
her after and said, 'How I wish Leadbelly was alive, so he could have
heard you sing his song.' "
Seeger and Odetta performed together on occasion, at Carnegie Hall
and in Central Park, among other places.
Seeger said Odetta's mother had wanted her to be a classical singer,
but "she was attracted to us folkies."
During visits to the home in Fishkill where Seeger and his wife,
Toshi, raised their family, Odetta would don a pair of boots and work
clothes and help chop wood.
"She was very direct, very straightforward," Seeger said. "Nothing
fancy. She had a good sense of humor."
Odetta performed at the World Peace Festival in Amenia in 2003 and at
the Clearwater Festival in 1998. Odetta has also performed at the
Towne Crier Cafe in Pawling many times over three decades.
"I would classify her as folk music royalty," Towne Crier Cafe owner
Phil Ciganer said. "She is a half-a-century of being an integral
figure of American folk music and civil rights."
Odetta attended a sneak peek screening of a documentary about Wavy
Gravy at the 2006 Woodstock Film Festival. One of the highlights of
that festival was the impromptu round of cheers and applause that
greeted Odetta as she left the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock,
where she had seen a documentary about the Dixie Chicks.
"The power would just come out of her like people wouldn't believe,"
Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, she moved with her
family to Los Angeles at age 6. Her father had died when she was
young and she took her stepfather's last name, Felious. Hearing her
in glee club, a junior high teacher made sure she got music lessons,
but Odetta became interested in folk music in her late teens and
turned away from classical studies.
With her booming, classically trained voice and spare guitar, Odetta
gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners,
housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites.
First coming to prominence in the 1950s, she influenced Harry
Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other singers who had roots in
the folk music boom.
An Odetta record on the turntable, listeners could close their eyes
and imagine themselves hearing the sounds of spirituals and blues as
they rang out from a weathered back porch or around a long-vanished
campfire a century before.
"What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with
which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs; to
understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once
tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer," Time magazine wrote in 1960.
"She is a keening Irishwoman in 'Foggy Dew,' a chain-gang convict in
'Take This Hammer,' a deserted lover in 'Lass from the Low Country,'
" Time wrote.
Civil rights activism
Odetta called on her fellow blacks to "take pride in the history of
the American Negro" and was active in the civil rights movement. When
she sang at the March on Washington in August 1963, "Odetta's great,
full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill," The New York Times wrote.
She was nominated for a 1963 Grammy award for best folk recording for
"Odetta Sings Folk Songs." Two more Grammy nominations came in recent
years, for her 1999 "Blues Everywhere I Go" and her 2005 album "Gonna
Let It Shine."
In 1999, she was honored with a National Medal of the Arts.
Then-President Bill Clinton said her career showed "us all that songs
have the power to change the heart and change the world."
"I'm not a real folk singer," she told The Washington Post in 1983.
"I don't mind people calling me that, but I'm a musical historian.
I'm a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I've been
fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my
Among her notable early works were her 1956 album "Odetta Sings
Ballads and Blues," which included such songs as "Muleskinner Blues"
and "Jack O' Diamonds"; and her 1957 "At the Gate of Horn," which
featured the popular spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach John W. Barry
at firstname.lastname@example.org or 845-437-4822.