Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77
The cause was heart disease, her manager, Doug Yeager, said.
Odetta, who lived in Upper Manhattan, had been admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital three weeks ago with a number of ailments, including kidney trouble, Mr. Yeager said. In her last days, he said, she had been hoping to sing at the presidential inaugurationfor Barack Obama.
In a career of almost 60 years, Odetta sang at coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall. She became one of the best-known folk-music artists of the 1950s and ’60s. Her recordings of blues and ballads on dozens of albums influenced Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin and many others.
Odetta’s 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 to end racial discrimination.
Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger led to the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., was once asked which songs meant the most to her. “All of the songs Odetta sings,” she replied.
One of those songs was “I’m on My Way,” sung during the pivotal civil-rights March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. In a videotaped interview with The New York Times in 2007 for its online feature “The Last Word,” Odetta recalled the sentiments of another song she performed that day, “Oh Freedom,” which is rooted in slavery: “Oh freedom, Oh freedom, Oh freedom over me/ And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave/ And go home to my Lord and be free.”
Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930, in the depths of the Depression. The music of that time and place — particularly prison songs and work songs recorded in the fields of the Deep South — shaped her life.
“They were liberation songs,” she said in the interview with The Times. She added: “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, and in 1937 she and her mother, Flora Sanders, moved to Los Angeles. Three years later Odetta discovered that 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 National Public Radio interview in 2005 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.
She moved to New York in 1953 and began singing in nightclubs like the storied Blue Angel, cutting a striking figure with her guitar and her close-cropped hair, her voice plunging deep and soaring high. Her songs blended the personal and the political, the theatrical and the spiritual. Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” released in 1956, resonated with an audience eager to hear old songs made new.
Mr. Dylan, referring to that recording, said in a 1978 interview with Playboy, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he heard something “vital and personal,” and added, “I learned all the songs on that record.” The songs included “Muleskinner Blues,” “Jack o’ Diamonds” and “ ’Buked and Scorned.”
“What distinguished her from the start,” Time magazine wrote in 1960, “was the meticulous care with which she tried to recreate 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 sledgehammer.”
That year she gave a celebrated solo concert at Carnegie Hall and released a live album of it. Eight years later she was on stage there again, now with Mr. Dylan, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and other folk stars in a tribute to Woody Guthrie, which was also recorded for an album.
Odetta’s 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.”
Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.and performed for President John F. Kennedy. But with King’s assassination in 1968, much of 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 began to fade. Odetta’s fame flagged for years thereafter.
In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts. In 2003 she received a Living Legend tribute from the Library of Congress and a National Visionary Leadership award.
Odetta 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 two marriages ended in divorce; Mr. Minter moved to Germany in 1983. There are no immediate survivors, Mr. Yeager, Odetta’s manager, said.
Odetta was singing and performing well into the 21st century — 60 concerts in the last two years, Mr. Yeager said — and her influence stayed strong.
In April 2007, a half-century after Mr. Dylan first heard her, she returned to Carnegie Hall to perform in a 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.”
Mr. Reed called her “a majestic figure in American music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today.”
In her 2007 interview with The Times, Odetta spoke of the long-dead singers who first gave voice to the old blues and ballads and slavery songs she sang. “Those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life and living, who reaffirmed themselves,” she said. “They didn’t just fall down into the cracks or the holes. And that was an incredible example for me.”
Odetta (also known as Odetta Holmes) (b. December 31, 1930, Birmingham, Alabama - d. December 2, 2008, New York, New York) was a folk singer who was noted especially for her versions of spirituals and who became for many the voice of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.
After her father's death in 1937, Odetta moved with her mother to Los Angeles. She began classical voice training at age 13, and she earned a degree in classicl music from Los Angeles City College. Though she had heard the music of the Deep South as a child. It was not until 1950, on a trip to San Francisco, that she began to appreciate and participate in the emergent folk scene. She soon learned to play, the guitar and began to perform traditional songs. Her distinctive blend of folk, blues, ballads, and spirituals was powered by her rich vocal style, wide range, and deep passion. Within a few years her career took off. In the early 1950s, she moved to New York City, where she met singers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, who became loyal supporters. Her debut solo recording, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956), was soon followed by At the Gate of Horn (1957). Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan later said that hear Odetta on record "turned me on to folk singing." She performed at the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival four times during 1959-65, and she subsequently appeared on television and in several films.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Odetta continued to record as a leading folk musician -- although recordings did not do her performances justice. Her music and her politics suited the growing civil rights movement, and in 1963, she sang at the historic March on Washington led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Inevitably, as the movement waned and interest in folk music declined, Odetta's following shrank, although she continued to perform. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given in the arts in the United States, and in 2003 she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008), known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, and a civil and human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement". Her musical repertoire consisted largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she was influential to many of the key figures of the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, and Janis Joplin. Time included her song "Take This Hammer" on its list of the All-Time 100 Songs, stating that "Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music."
Early life and career
Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles, attended Belmont High School, and studied music at Los Angeles City College while employed as adomestic worker. She had operatic training from the age of 13. Her mother hoped she would follow Marian Anderson, but Odetta doubted a large black girl would ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years with the HollywoodTurnabout Puppet Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lanchester. She later joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow in 1949.
While on tour with Finian's Rainbow, Odetta "fell in with an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco", and after 1950 concentrated on folksinging.
She made her name by playing around the United States at the Blue Angel nightclub (New York City), the hungry i (San Francisco), and Tin Angel (San Francisco), where she and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry in 1954, for Fantasy Records.
A solo career followed, with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957). Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's best-selling folk albums.
In 1959 she appeared on Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special. Odetta sang Water Boy and a duet with Belafonte, There's a Hole in My Bucket.
In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her "The Queen of American folk music". Also in 1961 the duo Harry Belafonte and Odetta made #32 in the UK Singles Chartwith the song There's a Hole in the Bucket. Many Americans remember her performance at the 1963 civil rights movement's March on Washington where she sang "O Freedom." She considered her involvement in the Civil Rights movement as being "one of the privates in a very big army."
Broadening her musical scope, Odetta used band arrangements on several albums rather than playing alone, and released music of a more "jazz" style on albums likeOdetta and the Blues (1962) and Odetta (1967). She gave a remarkable performance in 1968 at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert.
Odetta also acted in several films during this period, including Cinerama Holiday (1955), the film of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
Her marriages to Dan Gordon and Gary Shead ended in divorce. Singer-guitarist Louisiana Red was a former companion.
In May 1975 she appeared on public television's Say Brother program, performing "Give Me Your Hand" in the studio, in addition to speaking about her spirituality, the music tradition from which she drew, and her involvement in civil rights struggles.
In 1976, Odetta performed in the U.S. Bicentennial opera Be Glad Then, America by John La Montaine, as the Muse for America; with Donald Gramm, Richard Lewis and thePenn State University Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The production was directed by Sarah Caldwell who was the director of the Opera Company of Boston at the time.
Odetta released two albums in the 20-year period from 1977 to 1997: Movin' It On, in 1987 and a new version of Christmas Spirituals, produced by Rachel Faro, in 1988.
Beginning in 1998, she began recording and touring. The new CD To Ella (recorded live and dedicated to her friend Ella Fitzgerald upon hearing of her death before walking on stage), was released in 1998 on Silverwolf Records, followed by three releases on M.C. Records in partnership with pianist/arranger/producer Seth Farber and record producer Mark Carpentieri. These included Blues Everywhere I Go, a 2000 Grammy-nominated blues/jazz band tribute album to the great lady blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s; Looking for a Home, a 2002 W.C. Handy Award-nominated band tribute to Lead Belly; and the 2007 Grammy-nominated Gonna Let It Shine, a live album of gospel and spiritual songs supported by Seth Farber and The Holmes Brothers. These recordings and active touring led to guest appearance on fourteen new albums by other artists between 1999 and 2006 and the re-release of 45 old Odetta albums and compilation appearances.
On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honored at the Kennedy Center with the "Visionary Award" along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress honored her with its "Living Legend Award".
In mid-September 2001, Odetta performed with the Boys' Choir of Harlem on the Late Show with David Letterman, appearing on the first show after Letterman resumed broadcasting, having been off the air for several nights following the events of September 11; they performed "This Little Light of Mine".
The 2005 documentary film No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, highlights her musical influence on Bob Dylan, the subject of the documentary. The film contains an archive clip of Odetta performing "Waterboy" on TV in 1959, and we also hear Odetta's songs "Mule Skinner Blues" and "No More Auction Block for Me".
In 2006, Odetta opened shows for jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and in 2006 she toured the US, Canada, and Europe accompanied by her pianist, which included being presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference, and also in a concert in Riga's historic 1,000-year-old Maza Guild Hall. In December 2006, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their "Lifetime Achievement Award". In February 2007, the International Folk Alliance awarded Odetta as "Traditional Folk Artist of the Year".
On March 24, 2007, a tribute concert to Odetta was presented at the Rachel Schlesinger Theatre by the World Folk Music Association with live performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux,Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Josh White, Jr., (Josh White) Peter, Paul and Mary, Oscar Brand, Tom Rush, Jesse Winchester, Eric Andersen, Wavy Gravy, David Amram, Roger McGuinn,Robert Sims, Carolyn Hester, Donal Leace, Marie Knight, Side by Side, and Laura McGhee (from Scotland).
In 2007, Odetta's album Gonna Let It Shine was nominated for a Grammy, and she completed a major Fall Concert Tour in the "Songs of Spirit" show, which included artists from all over the world. She toured around North America in late 2006 and early 2007 to support this CD.
On January 21, 2008, Odetta was the keynote speaker at San Diego's Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, followed by concert performances in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Mill Valley, in addition to being the sole guest for the evening on PBS-TV's The Tavis Smiley Show.
Odetta was honored on May 8, 2008 at a historic tribute night, hosted by Wavy Gravy, held at Banjo Jim's in the East Village.
In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched a North American tour, where she sang from a wheelchair. Her set in recent years included "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)", Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues", "(Something Inside) So Strong", "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "House of the Rising Sun".
She made an appearance on June 30, 2008, at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. Her last big concert, before thousands of people, was in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. She last performed at Hugh's Room in Toronto on October 25.
In November 2008, Odetta's health began to decline and she began receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009.
At her memorial service in February 2009 at Riverside Church in New York City, participants included Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Holder, Steve Earle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter Yarrow, Maria Muldaur, Tom Chapin, Josh White, Jr. (son of Josh White), Emory Joseph, Rattlesnake Annie, the Brooklyn Technical High School Chamber Chorus, and videotaped tributes from Tavis Smiley andJoan Baez.
Odetta influenced Harry Belafonte, who "cited her as a key influence" on his musical career; Bob Dylan, who said, "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson. ... [That album was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record."; Joan Baez who said "Odetta was a goddess. Her passion moved me. I learned everything she sang."; Janis Joplin, who "spent much of her adolescence listening to Odetta, who was also the first person Janis imitated when she started singing"; poet Maya Angelou who once said "If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta's would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time."; John Waters, whose original screenplay for Hairspray mentions her as an influence on beatniks. and Carly Simon, who cited Odetta as a major influence, and talked about "going weak in the knees" when she had the opportunity to meet her in Greenwich Village
Further information: Odetta discography
|Lamp Unto My Feet||TV||1956|
|Tonight with Belafonte||TV/Musical Variety (Emmy Award)||1959|
|Toast of the Town||TV||1960|
|Have Gun – Will Travel|
episode 159/226: "The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs"
|Les Crane Show||TV/Talk/Variety||1965|
|Live from the Bitter End||TV – Concert||1967|
starring Odetta & Bobby Vinton
|NBC Music Special||1968|
|The Dick Cavett Show||TV/Talk/Variety||1969|
|The Johnny Cash Show||TV/Musical Variety||1969|
|The Virginia Graham Show||TV||1971|
|The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman||TV film||1974|
|Soundstage: Just Folks|
with Odetta, Tom Paxton, Josh White, Jr. and Bob Gibson
|TV – Concert Special||1980|
|Ramblin': with Odetta||TV – Concert Special||1981|
|Chords of Fame||doc.||1984|
|Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade||1989|
with Odetta, Shirley Verrett and Boys Choir of Harlem
|TV – Concert||1991|
|Tommy Makem & Friends||TV – Concert||1992|
|The Fire Next Time||TV film||1993|
|Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers||doc.||1993|
|Odetta: Woman In (E)motion||German TV – Concert Special||1995|
|Peter, Paul and Mary: Lifelines||TV||1996|
|National Medal of Arts and Humanities Presentations||C-SPAN||1999|
|The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack||Drama||2000|
|21st Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards||Awards ceremony||2000|
|Songs for a Better World||TV – Concert Special||2000|
|Later... with Jools Holland|
with Odetta, and Bill Wyman & His Rhythm Kings
|Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher||TV Talk Show||2001|
|Late Show with David Letterman||TV/Talk/Variety Show||2001|
|Pure Oxygen||TV – Talk Show||2002|
|Newport Folk Festival||TV – Concert Special||2002|
|Janis Joplin: Pieces of My Heart||BBC-TV Biography Special||2002|
|Get Up, Stand Up:|
The Story of Pop and Protest
|Tennessee Ernie Ford Show||TV Musical Variety (Re-Broadcast)||2003|
|Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey||PBS-TV Biography||2003|
|Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin||PBS-TV Biography||2003|
|Visionary Awards Presentation||PBS-TV Award Presentation||2004|
|Lightning in a Bottle – Salute to the Blues||doc.||2004|
|No Direction Home||doc.||2005|
|Talking Bob Dylan Blues||BBC-TV Concert Special||2005|
|Odetta: Blues Diva||PBS-TV Concert Special||2005|
|Odetta: Viss Notiek||Latvian TV Weekly Journal||2006|
|A Tribute to the Teachers of America||PBS-TV Special: Concert at The Town Hall, New York City|
Odetta sings a children's song medley of "Rock Island Line/Here We Go Looptie-Lou/Bring Me Little Water Sylvie"
|The Tavis Smiley Show||PBS-TV Discussion and performance of the song "Keep on Movin' It On"||January 25, 2008|
|Mountain Stage HD: John Hammond, Odetta, and Jorma Kaukonen||PBS-TV Concert Special||2008|
|Odetta Remembers||BBC Four interview and concert footage, 30 mins||February 6, 2009|
|The Yellow Bittern||A Biopic of Liam Clancy of The Clancy Brothers||2009|