Memorial Service for Odetta
By: Lloyd Grove
The All Stars of the Paleo Left along with a capacity crowd of more
than 1,000 that included Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora and even Jerry
Stiller and Ann Meara turned out at Riverside Church for last
night's memorial service for Odetta, the legendary folk and blues
singer who died in December just shy of 78. Big in voice, body, and
charisma, she was variously dubbed "The Voice of the Civil Rights
Movement" and, by no less a fan than Martin Luther King Jr., "The
Queen of American Folk Music." Her admirers and acolytes also
included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
The evening clocked in at more than four hours of speechifying,
sermonizing, and occasional singing (take that, Fidel Castro!), and
was by turns moving (the testimony of loss by her niece Jan Ford and
a young neighbor boy, Max Perkins), rousing (Sweet Honey in the
Rock's rendition of "God's Gonna Cut You Down"), and risible (Wavy
Gravy absurdly brandishing a rubber fish). In an unavoidable burst of
political correctness, Peter Yarrow of "Puff, the Magic Dragon" fame
even roped his daughter Bethany and the Brooklyn Tech Choir into
performing his treacly anthem of victimization, "Don't Laugh at Me."
Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and Maya Angelou regaled the largely
white audience of a certain age with Odetta stories and testimonials,
urgently declaiming phrases like "the instruments of social
oppression" and "the struggle for liberation," as though some
fabulous time machine had transported the entire gathering back to
the bad old days before Barack Obama was born, when J. Edgar Hoover
was collecting dirt on suspected comsymps and the Ku Klux Klan was a
force to be reckoned with.
"We were young and black and female and crazy as road lizards," said
the frail-looking, cane-using Dr. Angelou, recalling her early
friendship with the Alabama-born Odetta Holmes in the cabarets and
coffee houses of mid-century San Francisco. "I think of her as a
sister who sang us into freedom, really because that's what Odetta
did." The ridiculously handsome Belafonte, also leaning on a cane,
celebrated the woman whom President Clinton once presented with the
National Medal of Arts. "The loss for me has been so deep that words
elude me," Belafonte said. "Who will fill that space? It is hard to know."
Fans, Musicians Gather to Remember Odetta in New York
by Brian Braiker
New York's Riverside Church held an hours-long celebration of the
life of folk singer and civil rights pioneer Odetta Tuesday night.
More than a thousand fans, family members and loved ones filed into
the Gothic cathedral to take part in an evening of music and
remembrance for the iconic singer who died at 77 in December. "The
syncopation in her song was the human heartbeat in all of us,"
remembered senior minister Rev. Brad Braxton. "Music makes an altar
of our ears; Odetta was the high priestess."
The evening included performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Josh
White Jr., Steve Earle and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Standout musical moments included Guy Davis's performance of "Payday"
a traditional fingerpicked country blues in which he recalled
visiting Odetta in the hospital and Pete Seeger, still sturdy at
89, leading the entire congregation through the worksong "Take this Hammer."
With more than 30 people scheduled to either speak or perform, the
evening stretched towards the four-hour mark a testament to the
number of lives Odetta had touched with her songs and her outsized
persona. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez remembered Odetta in video tributes;
Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou delivered powerful eulogies to the
woman who provided the soundrack to the civil rights movement, most
notably in her performance of "Oh Freedom" at the 1963 March on
Washington, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
"I've tried to tell the truth in my books, in the way I live my
life," said Angelou. "And much of that, the credit can be laid at the
foot of that sweet black woman who could take the rafters off the
windows." In her last days, Odetta told friends the election of
Barack Obama was a culmination of her life's work. "She lit up the
hospital," her friend Wavy Gravy, the activist clown prince, told RS
in December. "She was just joyful."