Remembering Odetta

Odetta_lOdetta, the singer, actress and civil rights activist famous for her outspoken politics and inimitable deep-mahogany voice, died yesterday in New York City at age 77. Born in Alabama and raised in Los Angeles, she became a sort of legend’s legend, often cited by names like Harry Belafonte, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez (who called her "a goddess") and Bob Dylan (he famously claimed she turned him on to folk singing; she returned the favor by recording 1965’s Odetta Sings Dylan). Even Martin Luther King Jr.  dubbed her "The queen of American folk music."

Finding her medium in jazz, folk, spirituals and blues, Odetta released nearly 30 albums, many of them live recordings, over her 50-plus-year career, while also acting in films (1961’s Sanctuary, 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) and touring extensively, as well as appearing frequently at rallies, protests and other events to further the cause of civil rights.

This year, she embarked on an ambitious national tour, during which she revived classics including “This Little Light of Mine (I’m Gonna Let It Shine)” and Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues,” and made her final appearances in Toronto in late October before finally losing her battle with heart disease Dec. 2. She is survived by two children, a son and a daughter.

On a personal note, I never got a chance to see Odetta perform live, but grew up with a dad who admired and respected her, so I called him after the news came out and asked how he remembered her. Here’s what he had to say: "The first time I saw her play was at a civil rights protest in New York in the late ’60s, maybe ’66 or ’67… The thing I remember about her more than anything is that she immediately called for a kind of profound respect, because she seemed so thoughtful and so serious. And she was really imposing in person, she added this kind of gravitas and validity to whatever event she was at. Plus it was a female voice, and it really balanced the other voices coming out for civil rights. For me, she stood out as one of the strongest females [in the movement]. She was black and female and talented and she just demanded respect. She had that kind of honor."

After the jump, check out some embedded Clips of Odetta’s performances, singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" with Tennessee Ernie Ford, doing "Midnight Special" solo, and performing "House of the Rising Sun" in 2005; plus, click here for a 2005 NPR interview that includes her performance of "Amazing Grace."

addCredit(“Al Pereira/WireImage”)

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  • Carole

    I hope that many years from now people will still remember visionaries like Odetta that have died.

  • Cash Edwards

    The International Folk Music And Dance Alliance was saddened to hear that Odetta passed away. Singer, actress on stage and screen, freedom marcher, Odetta has toured the world singing songs and bringing stories of America’s southern experience to her audiences. The Folk Alliance honored Odetta with a Lifetime Achievement Award at their 2005 International conference in Montreal. The Folk Alliance’s Executive Director, Louis Meyers, had this to offer upon hearing the news of her passing:
    “Odetta will be missed by generations of fans that were guided to sounds they would have never found on their own by her unique musical world of blues, jazz, folk and traditional styles. There will never be another Odetta.”

  • Parvati

    Your light is shining, Odetta. God bless you on your spirit’s journey home.

  • bootsycolumbia

    Thank you for that clip of Odetta and Tennessee Ernie Ford. It brought tears to my eyes. So beautiful. Rest in peace, Odetta, and thank you for your voice and your spirit.

  • Harold

    This post has been featured at – Great piece

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