The great blues and folk singer Odetta died Tuesday. She lived long enough to see her dream of a Black President fulfilled, but didn't last long enough to sing at Obama's inauguration, which was her hope. The New York Times obit follows.
Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77
By TIM WEINER
New York Times
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, Ala., 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
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
"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
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; Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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."
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company