Odetta, 77; Sang the Soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement

Odetta had hoped to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration, her manager said.
Odetta had hoped to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration, her manager said. (By Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
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By Martin Weil and Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Odetta, 77, the folk and blues singer whose renditions of civil rights anthems accompanied historic events and made history themselves, died last night in New York.

Afflicted for years with heart and lung ailments, she died at Lenox Hill Hospital, which she had entered at the end of October for treatment of kidney failure, according to her manager, Douglas Yeager.

Her hope to sing at the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama had helped keep her alive for weeks when medical experts had despaired of her prospects for survival, Yeager said.

In March 2007, she had attended a concert held in Washington in her honor. It seemed a marvel that she could attend at all, let alone sing, Yeager said in an interview early this morning.

Then, he said, she mounted the stage, wishing "to say hello" to the audience. She launched into a full-throated rendition of one of the songs with which she was most closely associated: "This Little Light of Mine."

Her vitality and determination, he said, "no one could explain."

At least three times in the past 10 years, he said, she had appeared to be on the brink of death, and had roused herself not only to appear in public, but also to sing.

"She was one of the great singers of late-20th-century America," said folk musician and peace activist Pete Seeger, who first met Odetta at a folk songfest in 1950. "She sang straight, no tricks," he said in an interview. He meant that her performance showed none of the tics, idiosyncrasies or gimmicks that could detract from the message of the words and melodies she sang.

Her power, in its directness, Seeger said, "impressed millions of people."

Seeger and singer Harry Belafonte were numbered among her earliest advocates. In addition, she was recognized as an important influence on the careers of other famous figures of the musical world.

These included the Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Joan Armatrading, all of whom have often been cited as performers who owed much to her inspiration. "I'm the mama and they're the children," Odetta once said, when asked about who had influenced whom.

Dylan credited Odetta's first solo record, "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues" (1956), as "the first thing that turned me on to folk singing. . . . [It] was just something vital and personal."

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