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

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."

In addition, it was her voice, with the passion and the soulfulness it conveyed, that was often said to sound in the ears of those who marched, picketed and protested in other ways during the era of the great civil rights demonstrations.

Years after the historic 1963 March on Washington, she was remembered as having sung from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after an introduction by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

She was born in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Los Angeles, where she studied music at Los Angeles City College. She received classical training in voice and began making professional appearances in musical theater as a teenager.

As a member of a touring company of "Finian's Rainbow," she found herself in San Francisco at the time of the folk music revival. Falling in with folk performers, she adopted the folk genre for herself.

Starting in the early 1950s, her impressive voice, ranging from soprano to baritone, could be heard in nightclubs and on records, giving a special feeling to the words of folk songs, old and new.

Through these songs, she once said, she became increasingly familiar with and passionate about the struggle of the deprived and oppressed, and with the efforts of black people to gain their rights.

Students of music regarded her most prolific period as the 1960s; in those years at least 15 albums were released, according to one biographical Web site. Among them were "Odetta at Carnegie Hall," "Christmas Spirituals," "Odetta and the Blues," "It's a Mighty World" and "Odetta Sings Dylan."

With some reluctance, she dropped her surname, Felious, at the suggestion of a club manager who claimed it was too difficult to pronounce. She acted in movies and on television, and received such honors as the National Medal of Arts, which was presented to her by President Bill Clinton.

She was married three times; two of the marriages ended in divorce.

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