American Folk Music Pioneer
It is nearly impossible to measure Odetta’s profound influence on American folk music. For over 50 years, touching seven decades, she has been at the forefront of the American folk movement; forging a career that has embraced race, politics and the human condition within her music, while serving as a figurehead for countless folk artists who have followed after her. Even her hairstyle was influential. While she freely admits that she has never had a hit song with which to frame her career, it has always been true that it is not any particular song, but her delivery, imbued with heart, soul and deep conviction, that has consistently plucked a vital chord with her audiences. She was the first female folk singer to forge the bond between traditional folk music and more contemporary forms, such as the blues, gospel music and protest songs. To this day, she remains fiercely committed to the spirit and character of her art; while attaining legendary status as a musician and performer.
Odetta Holmes was born on New Year’s eve, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, Reuben, was a steel mill worker. He died a few years after Odetta’s birth. Her mother, Flora (maiden name Sanders), was a housekeeper and maid, who eventually re-married, Zadock Felious, a janitor. Flora gave Odetta, and her younger sister, their step-father’s surname. In 1937 the family moved to Los Angeles. Encouraged by her step-father, who enjoyed music in the home, young Odetta took piano lessons. Zadock Felious often took his step-daughters to see popular black performers of the day. In an interview with the New York Times, Odetta later recalled, “ The music I fed on then was Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra , Nat Cole, when he had a trio, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Rushing and Count Basie’s band.”
At around the age of eleven, the immense potential in Odetta’s singing voice was being noticed in school and at church. Her parents began to save money toward voice lessons for the girl, but were advised to wait until their daughter reached adolescence, before securing vocal lessons for her. So, Odetta’s formal vocal instruction was delayed until she was thirteen, at which point she began classical vocal training. By the age of fourteen, Odetta had quickly become the “star” of the Belmont High School glee club. Shortly after that, she began singing in productions at the Turnabout Theatre in Hollywood.
When the family could no longer afford to pay for Odetta’s classical voice lessons, puppeteer Harry Burnette, who knew Odetta from her work at the Turnabout, stepped forward to act as her patron, enabling her to continue her vocal training. After graduating from Belmont High School in 1947, Odetta enrolled at Los Angeles City College, where she pursued (and eventually received) a degree in Classical Music and Musical Comedy. “There was a time,” she later said, “when if it wasn’t classical, I wasn’t interested. I was interested in oratorios and art songs and lieder.”
Odetta worked as a housekeeper by day to pay for her education, while studying voice at school at night. At one point, she was taking classical voice lessons as a coloratura soprano from Metropolitan Opera soprano Janet Spenser, until Odetta began to suspect that her teacher was trying to mold her into another Marian Anderson. “When I was growing up, there was no way that a black person was going to be in the opera. I knew that my hero, Marian Anderson, well, not until she was retired did they even invite her to participate in the Metropolitan Opera.” Though she harbored anger and frustration about her situation as a black female artist in the United States in the ‘40s, Odetta would eventually find a means to express those feelings in a positive way.
In 1949, Odetta landed a role in the in the chorus of Finian’s Rainbow, which was staged at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in the Summer of 1949. It was during the run of that show, that she first heard the blues harmonica legend Sonny Terry perform. It was at this time too, that Odetta began a close friendship with Maya Angelou- who later went on to become a highly respected poet- a friendship that has continued ever since.
The following Summer, Odetta won a part in a San Francisco production of Guys And Dolls. It was in San Francisco that Odetta was first exposed to the burgeoning local folk music scene. After the show ended its run, Odetta returned to Los Angeles, working as a live-in housekeeper. During that time, she sang a classical piece on a show bill with Paul Robeson.
But Odetta had been bitten by the folk music bug. She bought a small-bodied acoustic guitar, nicknaming it “Baby” (a guitar upon which she has continued to rely for over fifty years), and taught herself to play. Though she never became a great guitarist, she did manage to perfect a technique, which has long been referred to as the “Odetta strum,” with which to accompany herself. By 1951, she had gradually begun to perform as a solo folk act in West Coast clubs.
In 1952, an unplanned performance at the Hungry i in San Francisco, after having been surreptitiously summoned from the audience, led to Odetta being offered a gig at the club. However a jealous fellow-performer, who regularly played at the Hungry i, objected- and the offer was rescinded. Undaunted, Odetta instead accepted a year-long engagement at rival club, the Tin Angel, where her transcendent abilities as an interpreter of “Negro work songs and spirituals,” garnered for her widespread regional acclaim.
“Some of the songs served me by taking care of the frustration that I felt, the hate I felt for myself and everybody else, just being unhappy and unsatisfied. As I sang the prison work songs, I got the anger and the fury attended to in me.”
Taking time off from her housekeeping job in 1953, Odetta played a triumphant month-long gig at the prestigious Blue Angel in Manhattan, New York where she was rapidly embraced by the Greenwich Village folk community, attracting interest from numerous luminaries- Pete Seeger and, especially, Harry Belafonte the most devoted among them.
“The first time I heard Odetta sing,” Pete Seeger later said, “she sang ‘Take This Hammer,’ and I went and told her how I wish Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her.” At a gathering honoring Dave Van Ronk in Greenwich Village, Odetta was asked to perform. But she had not brought “Baby” along with her to the affair. Tom Paxton offered to lend her his guitar, but Odetta refused, replying, that all she needed was her “voice and hands- the original instruments,” with which she proceeded to mesmerize the crowd with a stirring a cappella performance.
Odetta’s voice had matured over the years. She had become a mezzo-soprano/contralto, nearly a baritone. Her tall stature and powerful voice were imposing to some people. She was proud of her African heritage and was the first prominent black woman to wear her hair styled in what was later called an “Afro.” The hairstyle was so closely associated with the artist, within the black community, that for many years it was routinely referred to as the “Odetta.”
Riding the wave of her sudden popularity, in 1954 Odetta recorded her first album, The Tin Angel, on the Fantasy label. She subsequently recorded a follow up album, Odetta And Larry, in 1955.
But it was her 1956 release, Odetta Sings Ballads And Blues, that finally placed Odetta in the national consciousness. Containing a fiery blend of spirituals, blues, sea chanteys and Negro prison work songs, the album had a profound effect on a subsequent generation of folk musicians. A teen-aged Bob Dylan was so inspired by the album that he traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic model, choosing to become a folk musician instead of a rock and roller. “I learned all the songs on that album,“ he later said. Similarly, Joan Baez was said to have been profoundly moved by “Another Man Done Gone” from that album.
In 1957, accompanied by Bill Lee (filmmaker Spike Lee’s father) on bass, Odetta recorded her third album for the Fantasy label, Odetta At The Gate Of Horn. Lee’s addition helped to create a fuller, richer sound on that album, with a mix of familiar gospel songs, traditional folk songs, a Jamaican-flavored tune, as well as a rousing version of Lead belly’s “Midnight Special.” Lee continued to work with Odetta for many years. She toured across the United States and Canada, garnering critical acclaim for the majestic intensity of her live performances. In an attempt to capture the power of an on-stage performance, Odetta also recorded a live version of At The Gate Of Horn for Fantasy in 1957.
Her appearance with Harry Belafonte (as well as her own subsequent solo concerts) at Carnegie Hall helped to expose Odetta to a much wider listening audience, as did her appearances on Pete Seeger’s “Town Hall” shows. In addition, she received widespread attention for her 1959 appearance on Tonight With Belafonte, a Harry Belafonte television special. Her music career was firmly established as well. All this highly visible success brought for Odetta, tribute and praise from around the world. In 1959, she received the “Sylvania Award For Excellence.”
By the early 1960s Odetta had performed at Carnegie Hall several times and had appeared twice at the prestigious Newport Jazz Folk Festival (she subsequently played the Festival in 1964 and 1965 as well). In the early ‘60s, she embarked upon the first of many world tours, with a stop in Nigeria on her way home. In 1960 she co-starred with Lee Remick and Yves Montand in the film “Sanctuary.” Though this was not her first film performance (she had been in several films in the ‘50s), it was certainly her most high-profile appearance.
The ‘60s saw Odetta become a prominent voice in the American civil rights movement. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Washington DC in 1963 (and again in Selma, Alabama in 1965); and she stole the show from a spectacular bill, performing for President Kennedy on a nationally televised civil rights program, Dinner With The President.
In 1959, Odetta began recording for the Vanguard label, inaugurating what are considered to be the most productive years of her recording career. She released sixteen albums over the course of the next decade, including several classics, such as Odetta At Carnegie Hall in 1960, and the influential Folk Songs in 1963. Through her song interpretations, she helped to introduce to a whole new generation of listeners, the names of such legendary figures as Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter and Mahalia Jackson, as well as to the historic music of the black experience in the United States since the Civil War.
The ‘60s found further accolades being bestowed upon Odetta. In 1965, in honor of her musical achievements (and, perhaps underlyingly, for her efforts in the civil rights movement), she was awarded the key to the city of her birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama. She was later elected to the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame.
By the end of the decade, the landscape of the music industry had seen dramatic change. Threads of folk music had been woven by the likes of Bob Dylan and the Byrds into the fabric of rock and roll. The recording careers of many folk artists of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were coming to an inglorious end. With Odetta Sings, released in 1970, Odetta was to join the list. She did not record another album for eighteen years.
However that did not keep a resolute Odetta from continuing her tireless schedule of tours- playing in clubs, concert halls and college gymnasiums across the nation and around the world. In 1975, she hosted the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland. She also performed in plays by Toni Morrison. In addition, she acted in productions of The Crucibleand The Effects of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds. She also made numerous appearances on television variety shows. She received the Duke Ellington Fellowship at Duke University.
Odetta branched out, musically, from time to time in the years to follow. She performed with Bob Dylan in a rock format. She sang with the Count Basie Orchestra. She performed with writer Langston Hughes. She performed in the television mini-series The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman and in a film presentation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.
In 1987, Odetta recorded her first album in nearly two decades, Movin’ It On. However, it would be yet another eleven years, before her recording career would fully resume, on a more permanent basis. Still, her longtime fans claim that even the best among her recorded works fail to capture the force of her live performances. She continues to tour constantly. Her choice of material varies from venue to venue, audience to audience. “I’m fortunate,” she has said, “in that I can sing whatever I want. It’s not like I have this gigantic hit that I have to sing every night.”
Still, Odetta’s career has had an untold impact upon American folk music. Her influence can be traced directly to the works of artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, to name but a few. On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton, who first saw her perform on the Dinner With The President television special with President Kennedy in 1963, presented to Odetta the Medal of the Arts award from the National Endowment For The Arts.
It was an appropriate homage for a woman who was a pioneer in American folk music, as well as a compelling voice in the American civil rights movement. To this day, Odetta continues to sing out, expressing her concern for the dignity of humanity. As Harry Belafonte once said of her, “Odetta is a vast influence on our cultural life.”