by Alexander Billet
Odetta, the woman Martin Luther King dubbed "the Queen of American folk music," died on December 2nd at the age of 77. Whether it was folk, jazz, blues or soul--and she sang them all--her unmistakeable voice never failed to cut to the quick. Normally, it's a stretch to say that "music can change the world," but in Odetta's case, an exception can be made. When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she said "all the songs Odetta sings." Inspiration like that is truly rare.
Her songs were crucial in forging the alliance between the 1960s folk revival and the civil rights movement. She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930, on the cusp of the Great Depression. In 1937, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where she was noticed by classical music teachers for her unique voice and talent.
During high school she studied theatrical singing, and at 19 she landed a part in the musical Fianian's Rainbow. While on tour in San Francisco she discovered her life's calling in the city's vibrant juke-joints and bohemian coffeehouses. "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."
Though the path to a career in Hollywood and Broadway was open to her--or as open as it could be in segregated America--she felt her place was singing the songs of work and struggle that she had been exposed to as a child:
"In the classical music I was singing things like 'oh, swallow, swallow, flying, flying south'... it was a nice excercize but it had nothing to do with my life. The folk songs were the anger, the venom and the hatred of myself and everybody else and everything else... 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."
By the early 1950s, she had become a prominent figure in the folk revival. In 1956 she released her first solo album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, a collection of her version of acoustic folk and blues. The influence this album would have in the next wave of folk was immense. Bob Dylan had listened to the album before coming to Greenwich Village in the late-50s, and later claimed it was Odetta's music that made him trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic. Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Phil Ochs would claim similar influences.
In 1963, at the apex of the folk revival, she sang at the front of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for a crowd of 250,000. It was here that she performed now-legendary versions of "Oh Freedom," "On My Way" and "We Shall Overcome." All of them, especially "Overcome," became anthems of the civil rights movement.
Though few of the songs she recorded in her almost 60-year career were originals, Odetta never failed to make them her own. Her powerful voice and heart-rending arrangements brought the songs to life. She sang with an operatic range that still never lost the gritty intensity of each songs' reality. The stilted and academic way that music is taught today turns "folk songs" into relics, bereft of all their social context and emotional impact. Odetta's versions leave no question, however, that these are songs borne in the collision of anger and hope, sadness and joy, an oppressive world and the desire for justice and equality.
As the 60s progressed, so did Odetta's range and influence. As the civil rights marches spurred the movement against the Vietnam War, the singer strongly spoke out against US involvement. Likewise, her selection of songs became more eclectic, strident and overt. In 1965, she covered "Masters of War" as well as several other songs by the young Dylan she had helped shape.
Odetta even performed a version of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" that brought her one-of-a-kind sensibility to it. Her experiments with jazz would provoke artists of that genre like Charlie Haden and Archie Shepp to push their own boundaries, and continue exploring the nexus between the musical and political.
As the decades progressed, Odetta's work regrettably faded from public view. But that didn't mean that her soulful songs lost any relevance. Case in point would be her post-Katrina version of "House of the Rising Sun." Hearing her slow, deep, smoky voice sing of "a house in New Orleans" is almost impossible to do without being brought to tears.
She continued to perform and record in later life despite her age and declining health. After Barack Obama's victory in the November elections, she was the first artist selected to perform at his inauguration. That Odetta will not get to that performance is truly tragic.
And yet, the affect she had on popular music is something we can't lose. Odetta's songs gave a voice to a movement whose moment had been a long time coming, and remind us that there are more of those moments on the horizon. She showed us that music does not come from the desire for profit or fame, and that it belongs to no single person. It belongs to anyone who believes that human beings deserve all the great and beautiful things in life.
Published at Slept On Magazine. Check these folks out, they do great work!!!
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to SleptOn.com, Znet, and Socialist Worker. His article on censorship in hip-hop appears in the recently published At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored for Violence and Exploitation? from Greenhaven Press. His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com/, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.