Odetta, famed African-American folk singer, songwriter, actress, and activist, passed away in New York City at the age of 77 last night. Beloved by everyone from Maya Angelou to Bob Dylan to Martin Luther King, Jr. Born in Birmingham and raised in Los Angeles, she began her career in musicals before heading up to San Francisco and falling in with the folk crowd, mixing it up with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. She was signed to Vanguard Records, which was home to darn-near everybody who was anybody in the folk scene at the time. It’s important to keep in mind that “folk music” of that time was more than just people singing sad songs on acoustic guitars. It was more of a movement than a sound, and it tied directly into the social movements of the time, of which Odetta was an active participant. It was also more than a little non-white, led by artists like Harry Belafonte and Odetta. In fact, MLK himself called Odetta the “The Queen of American Folk Music.”
Odetta did some acting, too, and some funkier stuff in the late ’60s and early ’70s (see above). She continued touring until, well, until just a few months ago, when her health finally kept her off the road for good. She was even slated to perform at Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony! She received the National Medal of Arts, she was a Kennedy Center honoree, and Congress bestowed its Living Legend Award on her.
On a personal note, after reading various obits of Odetta, I hate that I only came to Odetta’s music recently, and, then only as an indie rock dilettante who discovered her through Stephen Merritt’s* work with her on The 6ths’ Hyacinths and Thistles. I bought a few Odetta records at yard sales and such over the years, and I’ve found them to be surprisingly stirring affairs, with her rich, deep voice working through traditionals in a manner that’s downright odd to someone not used to her delivery. She jumps completely inside these songs and finds their hidden peaks and valleys. It’s jarring at first for someone whose conception of folk music is strummy acoustic guitar sing-a-longs a la Peter, Paul, and Mary; ultimately, it’s never less than fascinating and almost always completely engrossing. I’ll make sure to rectify my lack of Odetta knowledge post-haste.
* Does his work with Odetta give him any anti-racist points?