The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2008 22:11:23 -0500
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Odetta, Presente!

Odetta, Presente!

1. Odetta Videos
2. The Last Word, an interview with Odetta
3. Odetta, Voice of American Civil Rights Movement, Dies


Bye Bye Odetta
Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77

The Midnight Special <>

Bourgeois Blues <>


The Last Word, Odetta
New York Times


Odetta, Voice of American Civil Rights Movement, Dies

By Tim Weiner
International Herald Tribune
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

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, Alabama, 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 slavery days.

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 said.

"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

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 Visionary Award.

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; 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

In April 2007, half a century after 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 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

The critic called her "a majestic figure in American
music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel
so foreign today."

  (c) 2008 The International Herald Tribune |


Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

Submit via email:
Submit via the Web:
Frequently asked questions:
Account assistance:
Search the archives:

Generated by Mnemosyne 0.12.