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Odetta; Matriarch For Generation Of Folk Singers

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.

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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