Odetta, Odetta Holmes, death Odetta
Connecticut Post, John Galayda/AP
Folk singer Odetta performs during the 2006 Sweetport Music and Arts Festival at the McLevy
Green in Bridgeport, Conn.

Legendary Folk Singer Odetta Dies at 77

December 03, 2008 02:55 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The singer, actress, songwriter and activist left an indelible mark on American folk music and was often called the “voice of the civil rights movement.”

Odetta Dies of Heart Disease

The deep-voiced singer succumbed at the age of 77 to a longstanding fight with chronic heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis in her lungs on Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, according to manager Douglas Yeager.

“May Odetta’s luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages,” Yeager said, according to Reuters. “Her voice will never die.”

Odetta, whose songs are often associated with the American civil rights movement, is best known for performing at the Aug. 1963 March on Washington, D.C., during which she sang the song “O Freedom.”

During her lifetime, she performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to bohemian nightclubs and coffeehouses and released several recordings. She became one of the most prominent folk singers of the 1950s and '60s, influencing artists such as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, who says that her singing first turned him on to folk music. When asked which songs were most meaningful to her, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks once replied: “All the songs Odetta sings.”
Even as the movement waned, she continued to perform and to inspire, and she had been slated to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, according to her manager.

In 1999 she was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities by President Bill Clinton. She married three times, to Don Gordon and Gary Shead, and in 1977 to blues musician Iverson Minter, also known as Louisiana Red.

“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,” poet Maya Angelou says about Odetta.

Background: Early Life

Odetta was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930, during the Great Depression. Her father died when she was young, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. It was there that a teacher suggested to her mother that she study voice.

She garnered inspiration by listening to blues, jazz and African-American and Anglo-American folk music, and her repertoire later included 19th century slave songs and spirituals, as well as the ballads of folk icons Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Although she eventually earned a degree in music from Los Angeles City College, Odetta said that her classical music and musical theater training had less of an influence on her than folk music.

In 1950, Odetta began her career in a production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” In her spare time she sang at coffeehouses and nightclubs, such as the Hungry I and the Tin Angel in San Francisco, and the “Blue Angel” in New York City, and gained the attention of Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte.

She recorded her first album in 1954, and her first solo record, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” soon after, which included the songs “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Water Boy,” and “‘Buked and Scorned.” In the 1960s she released “Odetta at Carnegie Hall” and “Odetta at Town Hall,” and also “Odetta Sings Dylan,” a tribute to Bob Dylan.

Video: “Water Boy”


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