The voice of a movement
Alexander Billet looks at the life of activist and singer Odetta.
December 8, 2008
ODETTA, THE woman Martin Luther King dubbed "the Queen of American
folk music," died on December 2 at the age of 77.
Whether it was folk, jazz, blues or soul--and she sang them all--her
unmistakable voice never failed to cut to the quick. Normally, it's a
stretch to say that "music can change the world," but in Odetta's
case, an exception can be made. When Rosa Parks was asked which songs
meant the most to her, she said "all the songs Odetta sings."
Inspiration like that is truly rare.
Her songs were crucial in forging the alliance between the 1960s folk
revival and the civil rights movement. She was born Odetta Holmes in
Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, on the cusp of the Great Depression. In
1937, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where she was
noticed by classical music teachers for her unique voice and talent.
During high school she studied theatrical singing, and at 19 she
landed a part in the musical Finian's Rainbow. While on tour in San
Francisco, she discovered her life's calling in the city's vibrant
juke joints and bohemian coffeehouses. "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."
Though the path to a career in Hollywood and Broadway was open to
her--or as open as it could be in segregated America--she felt her
place was singing the songs of work and struggle that she had been
exposed to as a child:
In the classical music I was singing things like "oh, swallow,
swallow, flying, flying south"....it was a nice exercise but it had
nothing to do with my life. The folk songs were the anger, the venom
and the hatred of myself and everybody else and everything
else...They were liberation songs! 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.
By the early 1950s, she had become a prominent figure in the folk
revival. In 1956, she released her first solo album, Odetta Sings
Ballads and Blues, a collection of her version of acoustic folk and
blues. The influence this album would have in the next wave of folk
Bob Dylan had listened to the album before coming to Greenwich
Village in the late '50s, and later claimed it was Odetta's music
that made him trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic. Joan
Baez, Janis Joplin and Phil Ochs would claim similar influences.
In 1963, at the apex of the folk revival, she sang at the front of
the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for a crowd of 250,000.
It was here that she performed now-legendary versions of "Oh
Freedom," "On My Way" and "We Shall Overcome." All of them,
especially "Overcome," became anthems of the civil rights movement.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THOUGH FEW of the songs she recorded in her almost 60-year career
were originals, Odetta never failed to make them her own. Her
powerful voice and heartrending arrangements brought the songs to
life. She sang with an operatic range but never lost the gritty
intensity of the songs.
The stilted and academic way that music is taught today turns "folk
songs" into relics, bereft of all their social context and emotional
impact. Odetta's versions leave no question, however, that these are
songs borne in the collision of anger and hope, sadness and joy, an
oppressive world and the desire for justice and equality.
As the '60s progressed, so did Odetta's range and influence. As the
civil rights marches spurred the movement against the Vietnam War,
the singer strongly spoke out against U.S. involvement. Likewise, her
selection of songs became more eclectic, strident and overt. In 1965,
she covered "Masters of War" as well as several other songs by the
young Dylan she had helped shape.
Odetta even performed a version of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields
Forever" that brought her one-of-a-kind sensibility to it. Her
experiments with jazz would provoke artists of that genre like
Charlie Haden and Archie Shepp to push their own boundaries, and
continue exploring the nexus between the musical and political.
As the decades progressed, Odetta's work regrettably faded from
public view. But that didn't mean that her soulful songs lost any
relevance. Case in point would be her post-Hurricane Katrina version
of "House of the Rising Sun." Hearing her slow, deep, smoky voice
sing of "a house in New Orleans" is almost impossible to do without
being brought to tears.
She continued to perform and record in later life despite her age and
declining health. After Barack Obama's victory in the November
elections, she was the first artist selected to perform at his
inauguration. That Odetta will not get to that performance is truly tragic.
And yet, the effect she had on popular music is something we can't
lose. Odetta's songs gave a voice to a movement whose moment had been
a long time coming, and remind us that there are more of those
moments on the horizon. She showed us that music does not come from
the desire for profit or fame, and that it belongs to no single
person. It belongs to anyone who believes that human beings deserve
all the great and beautiful things in life.
First appeared at SleptOn.com
By Brian McElhiney
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
I was going to use today's entry to review the new Shiny Toy Guns and
Killers albums that have come into the office in the past few weeks,
but upon hearing of legendary folk singer Odetta's death yesterday at
77, I felt compelled to write about my own measly experience with her music.
My first exposure to Odetta came from a journalism professor at Keene
State College in New Hampshire, where I attended school. I had
recently become enamored with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie and
Robert Johnson after taking a rock 'n' roll history course my freshman year.
While discussing our shared interest in folk and protest music with
my professor, she mentioned Odetta's name. Upon seeing my blank
stare, she chastised me and ordered me to go learn more about Odetta.
After a few quick Internet searches, scanning interviews, reviews and
listening to clips on YouTube, and I was duly impressed.
Fast-forward to July 21, when Odetta performed at Albany's Washington
Park, accompanied by pianist Seth Farber. I had somehow managed to
snag this plum assignment despite being the "newbie" music reviewer
at the Gazette.
Her performance, to say the least, was testament to the artistic
force that she was at 77, Odetta could still belt it out with the
best blues singers to have ever graced the form, even if her voice
was a bit rough-hewn and ragged. But then, Odetta was always raw, a
woman who embodied the struggles and stories she sang about, perhaps
better than any other artist before or since.
What immediately struck me when she took the stage was her presence
despite being in a wheelchair, she commanded the amphitheater at
Washington Park without even saying a word. When she did speak, her
words carried like booming thunder. She was the teacher, the audience
her students. And I was the lucky journalist with the laptop and
notebook sitting in awe barely 15 feet away from her.
She read a quote from author Marianne Williamson early on in the set
that struck me:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is
that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our
darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be
brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are we not to
be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the
world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as
children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is
within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we
let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our
presence automatically liberates others."
I think that about sums it up.
Time For Last Song of Hope
Published Dec 6, 2008
Odetta, 77, Folk Singer
ON the same day, on the same steps where Martin Luther King Jr. would
deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, Odettaonly 33 but
already a folk-music forcesang "I'm on My Way." And she was. The
singer and civil-rights activist, born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham,
Ala., produced 37 albums, received three Grammy nominations and
inspired giants of music including Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Bob
Dylan (who told Playboy in 1978 that"the first thing that turned me
on to folk singing was Odetta"). Her final interviewwhich she gave
10 months before her death from heart failure on Dec. 2was with PBS
host Tavis Smiley. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig about his
memories of a woman whose optimism brought him to tears:
We never know when we're talking to people for the last time. It's a
humbling experience, and one that I've had more often than most. I
was the last to interview Odetta, and also the last to interview
Ossie Davis, Oscar Brown Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
After our interview, Odetta performed "Keep On Moving It On"a song
whose hopeful lyrics in the midst of a historic election brought
tears to my eyes in January. Odetta had said before she passed that
she hoped to sing at Barack Obama's Inauguration. That might have
been an appropriate song: it speaks to what her whole life and legacy
was about, and it's a clarion call to the country. The fact that
Obama is now the president-elect does not mean that we live in a
post-racial America. There's still work to be done. Obama is not
going to be able to wave some black magic wand and make all the
problems in black America go away. But we have to keep on moving it on.
Off camera, I asked Odetta why she remains hopeful, and she talked
about the path that the country had traveled just in her life. She
said she could not have imagined back in her heyday that she'd ever
be on PBS talking to a black man who had his own show.
That's the beauty of the people in her generation, and that's the
lesson to us today: that you have to remain hopeful. Keep on moving
it on. That's the story of her life. When I read that she had passed,
I thought about that song. And I thought about the words of Samuel
Beckett: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." That's what it means
to keep on moving it on.
A life of spirit and surprises
By James Reed
Globe Staff / December 6, 2008
Two years ago, after several failed attempts in my youth, I finally
grasped Odetta's artistry. On the eve of what would be her final
performance at the Newport Folk Festival, I wrote a story for the
Globe about why Odetta, who died Tuesday at 77, still mattered.
Specifically, I wanted to explore how someone born in the late '70s
could come to revere a legend so closely associated with the civil
rights movement, a tumultuous era far removed from my middle-class
upbringing in Illinois. I concluded that I simply wasn't ready for
Odetta when I discovered her in high school, when Joan Baez and Bob
Dylan were my heroes.
I spoke to Odetta for that story, and I'm glad I did, even though she
wasn't the easiest interview. She was receptive to my theory that
sometimes we're not prepared to appreciate certain kinds of art when
we first encounter them. "Well, of course, the music makes sense to
you now," she told me on the phone from her apartment in New York.
"Our world has changed so much since you were 18 and now you're 28."
True to her regal reputation, Odetta didn't suffer fools, especially
late in her life, and then I made the mistake of asking what songs
she would be playing that weekend in Newport. "I don't understand
where these questions are taking us," she said curtly. Point taken,
and after just nine minutes on the phone, it was clear I had gotten
what I needed. She very politely thanked me for my interest in her
music. We hung up.
Obviously, it wasn't personal, and besides, I couldn't be upset with
someone who had inspired me so much. Every time I hear her voice -
that majestic, booming instrument that seemed to descend from on high
- I'm reminded of how transformative music really is. To me, Odetta
harnessed a visceral energy, a vibe as fierce as her Afro, whether
she was singing folk, blues, spirituals, or pop songs. I dare you to
watch the brief YouTube clip of Odetta performing "Water Boy" in "No
Direction Home," Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary on Dylan, and not
get the chills. Or maybe you'll feel a little terrified when she
starts barking and bellowing as the camera suddenly draws back almost
as a reaction to the force she unleashes.
As soon as I heard about her death, my first and only inclination was
to pull out all of my Odetta albums on vinyl - hard-won treasures
secured in the last minute of bidding on eBay. For such an icon of
song, Odetta rarely gets enough credit for what she accomplished as a
musician. She's renowned for her spirit, her conviction, her role in
the fight for civil rights, but much of her catalog is shamefully out of print.
There are so many memorable Odetta moments on record, as stirring now
as when they were pressed 30, 40, and 50 years ago. From "Odetta
Sings Ballads and Blues," her 1956 solo debut, she sounds like a
mournful siren who's lost her way on "Deep Blue Sea." Put on
"Tomorrow Is a Long Time," from "Odetta Sings Dylan" (1965), and
marvel at how she takes her time to illustrate the loneliness of
waiting for a true love to return.
More recently, indie-pop auteur Stephin Merritt recruited Odetta to
sing "Waltzing Me All the Way Home" on the 6ths album "Hyacinths and
Thistles" in 2000. He later said Odetta had told him she thought the
song was about two gay black soldiers during World War II, which was
news to Merritt.
That was Odetta, as full of surprises as she was spirit, and the list
of her unforgettable performances goes on and on. Now it's really up
to a record label to crack open the vaults and get Odetta's full
catalog back in circulation. After all, a national treasure deserves
a national audience.
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com