Remembering Odetta

Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Alabama during the Great Depression to a poor, working-class African-American family. At an early age, Odetta demonstrated a love for music, singing in church and at school. It was an elementary school teacher that noticed her
singing and recommended to her mother that she begin vocal training.

Odetta’s father, Ruben Holmes, died when she was 7 years old. His passing brought her and her mother to the new land of California. It was at the young age of 7 that Odetta experienced first-hand racism on a train heading to Los Angeles, when the conductor pointed out that colored people were not permitted to sit in the front and had to move to the back of the train.

Odetta settled in Los Angeles, attending junior high, Belmont High School, and eventually Los Angles City College. She received voice lessons while growing up as a teenager. When her mother could not pay for them anymore, a local puppeteer, Harry Burnette of the Hollywood Puppet Theater, stepped forward to pay for her to continue voice lessons
after she joined his musical production organization. Beginning at 14, she worked alongside actress Elsa Lanchester at the theater.

In 1949, right after graduating from college with a music degree, Odetta
landed a role in the Los Angeles production of “Finian’s Rainbow” at the Greek Theater. While starting at the Greek Theater, Odetta experienced her first taste of blues-folk music while listening to blues harmonica master Sonny Terry. The following season, she headed north along the Pacific Coast to do summer stock in “Guys and Dolls” in San Francisco. On her
days off, she visited the North Beach neighborhood and listened to folk music.

After San Francisco, Odetta returned to Los Angeles and worked as a live-in housekeeper. On her days off, she performed on a show bill with the great African-American actor, Paul Robeson.

In 1953, as a 23-year-old woman, Odetta moved to New York City to play folk music, appearing at the Blue Angel Folk Club. She made a name for herself as a black woman with a deep and high soaring voice, who blended the personal with the political when describing her experience of growing up down south, and mixed the theatrical and the spiritual when singing blues and folk music. She began a very successful solo folk music career which lasted 50 years and started out at folk clubs across the United States, including the Blue Angel in New York and the hungry i nightclub and the Tin Angel bar in San Francisco. She also built a musical friendship with two world-renowned male artists that would last a lifetime: folk singer Pete Seeger and actor/performer Harry Belafonte.

In 1954, she released her debut album, “The Tin Angel,” for Fantasy Records, featuring folk standards such as “John Henry,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Old Cotton Fields at Home,” with Larry Mohr on banjo, harmony and vocals. This album expanded Odetta’s musical repertoire from classical and show music to include folk-blues. In 1959, Belafonte included her in a major television special, “Tonight with Belmont,” which made her a national name when she sang “Water Boy.”

Odetta became an activist in the 1960s, performing in the 1963 March on Washington where she sang “O Freedom,” and participating in the March on Selma. She also performed for President Kennedy and his cabinet on the nationally televised civil rights special, “Dinner With the President.”

The 1960s were the most productive decade musically for Odetta as she released 16 albums, including “Odetta at Carnegie Hall,” “Christmas Spirituals,” “Odetta and the Blues,” “It’s a Mighty World,” and “Odetta Sings Dylan.” She released her first hit single, “There’s a Hole in My Bucket,” teaming up with Harry Belafonte. This single reached number 32 on
the U.K. singles chart for 1961. She released “Odetta Sings Folk Songs” in 1963, which became one of the year’s best-selling folk LPs.

The assassination of Dr. King in 1968 took the fire out of the civil rights movement, and began a period of withdrawal for Odetta.

Odetta acted in the film, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974). She hosted the 1975 Montreaux Jazz Festival. She also appeared on a variety of television specials throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and sang in the BBC concert special, “Talking Bob Dylan Blues,” in 2005.

Odetta appeared on public television programs, including the 1975 “Say Brother,” performing “Give Me Your Hand.” She spoke on the “Say Brother” show about her spirituality and her involvement in the civil rights movement.

The year 1998 marked a special time for Odetta, in which she recorded a CD honoring her friend, “To Ella.” This recording was created to honor jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who had died in 1996.

In 1999, Odetta released her first album in 14 years, titled “Blues Everywhere I Go.” President Bill Clinton gave Odetta a National Endowment for The Arts Medal of Arts award, which honors artists for creativity and hard work. Odetta was nominated for this award by the American public.

The end of the 1990s marked a new creative time for Odetta. “Blues Everywhere I Go” gave her a 2000 Grammy nomination for Blues and Jazz. She followed that with the release of four albums in five short years, including “Looking For a Home,” “Women in (E)motion,” “The Tradition Masters,” and “Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays.”

Odetta received two prestigious honors. In 2004, she received a “Visionary Award” at the Kennedy Center with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress honored her with its “Living Legend Award.”

Film director Martin Scorsese released a documentary in 2005 called “No Direction Home,” highlighting Odetta’s influence on Bob Dylan. This film was followed by her touring the U.S., Canada and Europe. She was also honored at the 2006 Winnipeg Folk Festival with their lifetime achievement award and received the 2007 International Folk Alliance “Traditional Folk Artist of the Year” award.

In 2007, “Gonna Let It Shine” was nominated for a Grammy. She went on to do a Fall Concert Tour of North America.

Odetta began 2008 as the keynote speaker at San Diego’s Martin Luther King Day. She followed this by appearing on the PBS Travis Smiley Show. Later on in 2008, she launched a new North American tour in which she sang from a wheelchair.

Her last appearance was at New York’s Bitter End nightclub in June 2008, for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. Her health declined, and in November she received treatment at the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. On December 2, 2008, the folk artist termed by Dr. Martin Luther King as the “Queen of American folk music,” died from heart disease at the age of 77 with no surviving children.

—Robert Sondak

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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