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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)

Odetta Holmes was born Dec. 31, 1930, in Birmingham and adopted the surname Felious from her stepfather while growing up in Los Angeles. Her father, a steelworker, died when she was an infant.

After showing musical skill at a young age, she began classical vocal training that developed into ambition for a concert singing career. Her mother hoped she would follow the racially groundbreaking career of opera singer Marian Anderson.

"I was a smart kid and I knew that a black girl who was big like I was was never going to be in the Metropolitan Opera," Odetta told the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union last year. "Look at Marian Anderson, my hero. It wasn't until she was almost retired before they invited her to sing at the Met. I had taken the clues."

After graduating from high school, Odetta followed her mother into work as a domestic worker. She also studied music in night classes at Los Angeles City College and found choral work in the West Coast touring company of the musical "Finian's Rainbow."

The show took her to San Francisco in 1949, and it was there that she was exposed to the folk music scene.

She described feeling an instant attraction to folk's expressive freedom. For that reason, she always looked down on musical purists who criticized her for adding contemporary songs by Dylan to her repertoire ("Odetta Sings Dylan," 1965) or a jazz flair with backing from former Count Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton ("Odetta and the Blues," 1962).

She did not like interference from anyone. She told an interviewer that Dylan stopped by her recording studio to fix a few lyrics for her 1965 record but that she asked him to leave "because it's hard enough to record . . . and I didn't want the composer standing around saying, 'I didn't mean it like that.' "

Critic Richie Unterberger wrote in the All Music Guide that the final result stood as "one of the first albums entirely devoted to Bob Dylan interpretations, and one of the best."

In the early 1950s, Odetta secured important club engagements in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. One club manager urged her to drop her surname because it was hard to pronounce. She was initially reluctant to go by one name, saying it sounded too "strutty."

While maintaining a prolific career in concerts and festivals, Odetta starred in a stage production about the life of blues singer Bessie Smith and periodically took supporting roles onscreen, including a dramatic part as a servant who kills a child in "Sanctuary" (1961), a film based on a William Faulkner novel. She also played a supporting part in the 1974 TV movie "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" starring Cicely Tyson.

Her late-career albums were devoted to jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald ("To Ella," 1998) and blues guitarist and singer Leadbelly ("Looking for a Home," 2001). She earned a Grammy Award nomination for "Blues Everywhere I Go," a 1999 release honoring blueswomen of the 1920s and 1930s, and a second nomination for "Gonna Let it Shine" (2005), a live album of Christmas spirituals.

In 1999, she won the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts.

She had serious health setbacks in the past decade but changed doctors when one forbade her from performing. In recent years, she went onstage in a wheelchair and accompanied by an oxygen tank, and she had hoped to sing at the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Her one concession to her health was giving up the guitar, which she had always played in a powerful, self-taught fashion copied by many admirers.

Her marriages to Dan Gordon and Australian painter Gary Shead ended in divorce. She was a former companion of singer-guitarist Iversen "Louisiana Red" Minter.

In the early 1970s, she worked in a New York club devoted mostly to rock music. She told a New York Times reporter, "A lot of young people have been asking me if I went into folk music because of Joan Baez or Bob Dylan. But I'm the mama and they're the children, and I influenced those singers."

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