Odetta; Matriarch For Generation Of Folk Singers

Odetta, a civil rights activist, was a classically trained and versatile vocalist, singing blues, swing, sea chanteys, spirituals and protest songs.
Odetta, a civil rights activist, was a classically trained and versatile vocalist, singing blues, swing, sea chanteys, spirituals and protest songs. (1978 Associated Press Photo)
By Martin Weil and Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 4, 2008

Odetta, 77, a forceful singer during the folk music revival and civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s and a self-described "musical historian" who championed the downtrodden by reviving slave, prison and work songs, died Dec. 2 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis.

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

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

Seeger and singer Harry Belafonte were among her earliest advocates, and she was said to have inspired Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Joan Armatrading.

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."

A classically trained singer, Odetta adapted her remarkable vocal range -- from soprano to baritone -- to a folk repertoire that included blues, swing, sea chanteys, spirituals and protest songs. She was widely remembered for singing "O Freedom" and two other spirituals as part of what she called the "Freedom Trilogy" at the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. introduced her.

She tirelessly performed benefit concerts for the civil rights movement, and in 1963, she sang in front of President John F. Kennedy on the nationally televised civil rights special "Dinner With the President." Alongside King, she marched for voting rights in 1965 in Selma, Ala.

"In folk music, complex emotions are spoken about with such simplicity that it's the highest form of art to me," she told the New York Times in 1965. "You can unclutter things."

She added, "Reading some of the backgrounds of these songs, it points up to how absolutely vicious man can be -- crushing someone under his feet to stand higher, a ladder of human beings -- but there is strength in not allowing oneself to be crushed, bouncing back in spite of a pair of boots standing on top of you."

Her interest in long-forgotten music from chain gangs, fieldworkers and cowboys -- music she unearthed in many cases from the vaults of the Library of Congress -- earned her a reputation as the "First Lady of the Folk Song." But she shunned categorization and saw herself foremost as a "musical historian," she told The Washington Post.

Accompanied by her wood-bodied guitar "Baby," Odetta rose to international prominence on television, stage and record with an indomitable presence and voice that flexed from bell-like clarity to nasal grittiness on songs such as "Waterboy," "The House of the Rising Sun," "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Somebody Talking 'Bout Jesus" and "Keep On Moving It On."

In 1960, New York Times music critic Robert Shelton called Odetta "the most glorious new voice in American folk music." But she was already a veteran. She had played coffeehouses and Carnegie Hall, as well as the Newport Folk Festival, and appeared to poignant effect on TV shows with Belafonte and poet Langston Hughes.

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