Odetta: A powerful voice of the civil rights movement
By Monica Moorehead and Dolores Cox
Published Dec 11, 2008
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile … a long ways from home"
Taken from a "Negro" spiritual
This spiritual expresses the horrific impact of U.S. slavery on
millions of African people stolen from their homeland. The legendary
African-American folk singer, Odetta, sang this spiritual and others
like it with immeasurable feelings of deep sorrow and anguish.
Bestowed the honorific "Queen of America's Folk Music" by Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr., Odetta's voice was silenced on Dec. 2 with her
passing from heart failure in a Harlem, N.Y., hospital. She was 77
years old. When Rosa Parks, known as "the mother of the civil rights
movement," was asked which songs inspired her, her reply was the ones
that Odetta sang.
Odetta Holmes was born Dec. 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Ala., during the
Great Depression. At the age of six her family moved to Los Angeles.
She started playing the acoustic guitar at the age of 19. In the
1950s she performed in the musical "Finian's Rainbow" and sang in
coffee houses before permanently moving to New York. Her first solo
album, "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues," was released in 1956. She
would eventually perform at New York's Carnegie Hall.
For Odetta, folk musicbe it spirituals, blues or work songswas a
vehicle for expressing the plight and experiences of racism and
injustice experienced by Black people dating back to the days of slavery.
Odetta was instrumental in bringing work songs to a broader audience.
These were songs originally sung by Black prisoners on chain gangs to
express their enslaved-like conditions in the Southpicking cotton in
the fields or breaking up rocks with sledgehammers under the gun and
whip, from sunup to sundown.
In reference to work songs, Odetta stated, "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." (New York Times, Dec. 3) Odetta also sang
songs about working women, including mothers comforting crying babies
while rocking them to sleep.
Odetta used her talents to push forward the struggle for social
justice on many fronts.
The 1963 March on Washington, which brought out 250,000 people to
demand jobs and full equality for all, is best known for Dr. King's
"I Have a Dream" rally speech. Odetta sang three songs at that rally.
She marched alongside Dr. King in the Selma-to-Montgomery march in
1965. She did fundraising concerts for important mobilizations. She
performed at the NYC's Village Gate to help raise funds for the
100,000-strong, anti-war, May 3, 1981, March on the Pentagon.
WW managing editor, Monica Moorehead, commented, "Odetta performed
two benefit concerts in 1987 and 1993 to support Snow Hill Institute
for the Performing Arts in Alabama. This institute was founded by my
great-grandfather, William James Edwards, in 1893 to teach former
slaves how to read, write and learn a trade. With very little
resources, the school was reopened by my mother, Consuela Lee, to
teach indigent, Black rural children their rich heritage of jazz,
spirituals and folk music. The fact that Odetta would take time out
of her busy schedule to showcase her incredible talents in support of
a small, isolated school in the poor county of Wilcox was so awe
inspiring and an experience that all who were present will never
forget. She is someone who all cultural artists should aspire to be."
Moorehead's uncle, acoustic bassist and composer, Bill Lee aka
William James Edwards Lee III, told WW, "I became a folk-jazz bassist
while I lived in Chicago at the Gate of Horn club, just north of
downtown Chicago. Another bassist asked me to sub for him while I was
working with Josh White. I became the house bass player.
"Odetta followed Josh White as the next attraction and we 'hit it
off.' She asked me to become her bass player and we immediately
became a duo in the late 1950s. I found her to be musical and
understanding in her approach to life. We traveled all over the world
together, including Africa. Our concerts were successful and people
everywhere loved Odetta's music."
In 1999, Odetta was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts'
National Medal of Arts. And in 2003, the U.S. Library of Congress
presented Odetta with the 'Living Legend Award.'
Odetta was hoping to sing at Barack Obama's upcoming Jan. 20
presidential inauguration, and had a poster of him over her hospital
bed when she died. Even with her physical death, recordings of
Odetta's music will continue to have the power to heal, to soothe
frustration and inspire Black people.
The lyrics to the spiritual, "Oh, Freedom!" that Odetta performed at
the 1963 March on Washington succinctly epitomizes her life: "Oh
freedom, Oh freedom, Oh freedom over me/ An befo' I'd be a slave,
I'll be buried in my grave/ An' go home to my Lord an' be free."
Voices of Resistance Sing On
Dec 31, 2008
By Amy Goodman
Strong voices for peace have left us this year, people who used
their art for social change, often at a high personal price.
Odetta was a legendary folk singer of the civil rights movement.
Considered the "Queen of American Folk Music," Odetta introduced
audiences worldwide to African-American folk, blues and gospel music.
New Year's Eve was her birthday. She would have been 78. When Rosa
Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she replied, "All
of the songs Odetta sings."
Odetta sang "Oh, Freedom," an African-American slave spiritual, at
the 1963 March on Washington. Early on, she attracted the interest of
Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Her voice, her talent with the
guitar and the natural style in which she maintained her hairlater
to be dubbed "afro"set her as an icon of the civil rights movement.
She told an interviewer in 2003:
"When I first started, I would sing these prison songs ... it got
to a point where doing the music actually healed me ... it was music
from those who went before. The music gave them strength, and the
music gave us strength to carry it on."
She inspired Bernice Johnson Reagon, an early member of the SNCC
(the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers. She
had been suspended from college in Albany, Ga., for civil rights
protests, then went on to Spelman College, where historian Howard
Zinn and his wife, Roz, took her to folk music concerts by Joan Baez
Reagon recalls the first time she heard Odetta:
"In Georgia, where I grew up in the country, the roads were built
by chain-gang labor. I knew the sound, because as the men worked,
they sang. But I never thought I'd hear it coming from a concert
stage ... when she sang prison songs or work songs. ... She was just
what I needed to begin my life as a freedom fighter and as a Freedom Singer."
Reagon later went on to found the women's a cappella group Sweet
Honey in the Rock.
Another great liberation singer we lost this year was Miriam
Makeba of South Africa, known as "Mama Afrika." She sang against
apartheid, then went into exile for decades. Belafonte helped her,
too, gain recognition.
In 1968, she married SNCC-leader-turned-Black-Panther Stokely
Carmichael, for which she was blacklisted in the U.S. until the 1980s.
Soon after her death, I asked the Nobel peace laureate Desmond
Tutu about Makeba. The South African archbishop smiled: "Her singing,
her voice, helped many people to know a little bit more about the
vicious apartheid system. She was just a tremendous human being, a
great loss to us and to Africa."
Also blacklisted in 1968 was singer and actress Eartha Kitt, who
died at age 81 on Christmas Day. In 1968, she was invited to a
celebrity luncheon at the White House by Lady Bird Johnson, who asked
Kitt about urban poverty. Kitt replied: "You send the best of this
country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They
don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off
from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam." The first lady reportedly
burst into tears. For years afterward, Kitt performed almost
exclusively overseas and was investigated by the FBI and CIA.
Born out of the Deep South and South Africa, these women's voices
sang out, from concert halls to protest rallies. Another voice we
just lost sang out from the written page. Harold Pinter died on
Christmas Eve in London. Though too sick to travel to Stockholm to
collect his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, he sent a video
address: "The majority of politicians ... are interested not in truth
but in power. ... To maintain that power it is essential that people
remain in ignorance. ... What surrounds us therefore is a vast
tapestry of lies." Pinter was referring to U.S. policy from Guantanamo to Iraq.
As these icons are laid to rest, their voices continue to inspire
millions. Barack Obama will soon take the reins of the most powerful
nation on Earth, promising change. But it will now take the actions
of those millions, heeding these echoes of the past and transforming
them into their own voices, to effect real change.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international
TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America.
She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the
"Alternative Nobel" prize, and received the award in the Swedish
Parliament in December.