I meant to write something about Odetta’s passing when I heard about it on December 3rd, but it’s taken me this long to process it. Time Magazine and the New York Times wrote wonderful obituaries and reviews of her work, her music and the people it influenced, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte. She sang mostly gospel, spirituals and folk music, but she sang them in such a way that she sounded like a voice for an entire race, a race that was proud, had a long history in America, but was going to demand change. No wonder Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks called her their favorite singer. Maya Angelou summed up her talent this way:
“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”
I first heard Odetta as a middle class white kid living in the North with limited, if any exposure, to African American culture. My babysitter, a rabid folkie, used to bring Odetta records over to play on my Dad’s stereo. I remember chills going down my spine as Odetta’s rich contralto filled the room. You could almost feel her voice reverberating inside your rib cage, even though she never “shouted” her songs.
Then, when my family moved to the South, in the midst of the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and George Wallace’s racially charged 1968 run for President, I still remembered those Odetta songs. My eight year old self used to wonder how African Americans could be denied anything if they had Odetta on their side. From the power of her voice, I imagined her to be about 10 feet tall with superhuman powers. Especially when she sang God’s Gonna Cut You Down.
Years later, I began to appreciate the music for what it was. A powerful folk history in tune. Odetta was classically trained in Lieder and Opera. She could have sung an Aida or Carmen that would have made everyone forget about any European singer. But she chose the vehicle of folk music for its truth and powerful simplicity. Even when she sang a song that was obviously written from the viewpoint of a man, prison songs such as “Take this Hammer”, she sang with such truth and verisimilitude, you believed she’d lived that song. Her Christmas Spirituals album is one of the first I put on to mark Christmas season.
It was interesting, that even when Odetta sang traditional English and Appalachian folk songs, she sang them with the same authority and truthfulness. The common denominator seemed to be pride and defiance against oppression, no matter who the oppressor was. Odetta herself said all the songs she chose to sing 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.”
How I would have loved to have heard Odetta sing at the inauguration of this country’s first Black president. Apparently, Barack Obama would have too. Word has it, he penciled her in as his preferred performer. How sad that she didn’t live to enjoy that logical bookmark to her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.
I like to think, come January 20th, there will be concert somewhere in Heaven. Martin Luther King Jr. will be there, as will Bobby Kennedy, Miriam Makeba, Medgar Evers, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. Barack’s beloved grandmother Toot will be in the audience.
Odetta will be headlining with Paul Robeson.
Sing out, Odetta, wherever you are.
Here’s a snippet of Odetta at the Newport Folk Festival.