Once she was afraid to come out from behind her guitar. Odetta, the seemingly indomitable spirit of the '60s coffee houses, was not as brave as the survivors of prisons and turpentine camps she sang about. She was not as richly mournful as her blues notes or as gleeful as her game songs for children or as optimistic as the enslaved sources of her freedom songs.
In fact, Odetta hadn't found her song. And, for almost the 30 years of her public life, she was afraid of the audience. Even more, she was afraid of putting her own experiences and thoughts into words.
"I had always been a little old lady, the one who followed all the rules exactly. Doing what the parents said, what the teachers said. But it was all scaredness, I was afraid of the consequences. And I built up resentment and hate and I wasn't brave enough to say it," recalls Odetta.
She was also uncertain of her looks, the tall, broad, heavy frame that image-makers had rediculed. For years she refused to move around the stage.
"If there was a white woman who looked like a dog and had the songs, she would still be on top of the heap today," says Odetta, "there may not be many specific instances but judging from the lack of superstardom, I'd say my career has been affected by racism."
But today she has made peace with herself. At 49, she says she knows she has a place. After recent meetings with some veteran and fledgling folk singers, she says, "I knew I didn't want to take a match and burn down the house that's been building for 30 years."
During those 30 years she lived the glamorous public life, when she was hailed as "the most glorious voice in American folk music." Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin claimed her as an influence. Her notices were almost always raves.
But according to Odetta, even those years were "a constant brush with racism." She picks, as an example, the times when at a fund-raiser, a "grande dame" would ask for "a few more songs." She says these instances were part of the overall pattern of her career.
Of the black female protest singers of the 1950s and 1960s -- Odetta, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba -- Odetta is the only one still active. This week she is doing two nights at the Cellar Door.
Although she did try acting in one phase of her career, her first love is singing, she says, with a laugh that ricochets around the hotel suite. She sits facing the morning sun, the bright light dancing off her orange headwrap, the gold hoop earrings and gold braid necklace that brighten up an industrial-gray sweater.
"My most recent accomplishments and pleasurers are around singing," she says. "And teaching more and more I find it's a turn-on." From her home base in New York City, Odetta hangs out at Kenny Castaways and Gerties Folk City, searching out the younger voices.
"The younger group are people who have gone to college, where they were exposed to this kind of music -- because it isn't easy to find. There are very few blacks. And they are kids developing writing muscle, performing muscle but not in the original instrument, the voice," says Odetta, who gives private lessons to her finds.
And, she adds very quietly, they have more ego than philosophy, "In the 1950s the singer had a point of view and the audience came with a philosophy, save the Rosenbergs or whatever. The whole thing about stardom came later. Sure, there were the Weavers or Burl Ives but it wasn't the me-me-mine of today. That can get you into trouble."
But she acknowledges that it took her some time to get her knowledge of brutal conditions and broken hearts into a philosophy. She stopped singing "John Henry" years ago, because "I wasn't even convincing myself when I sang it, so I just had to turn it loose."
Perhaps because she started on a totally different musical road, it took her a while to tap the feeling she became known for. She was born Odetta Felious in Birmingham, Ala., and moved to Los Angeles at age 6. Her stepfather enjoyed the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, but her first musical training was up the street, in the classics.
That changed when a voice teacher urged her to be "another" Marian Anderson. "Now I adore Marian Anderson, and even patterned myself after what I thought she was like, but I didn't want to be another anybody," says Odetta. During a tour with "Finian's Rainbow," on the West Coast, she was introduced to folk singing and guitar playing. With the help of her mentors, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, she became a fixture, from the coffee houses to the Newport Folk Festival.
At first, she was afraid of everything -- the fame, the people, the stage. "I closed my eyes on stage. I was scared of myself and things that were nonexistent and invisible," says Odetta. As she gained confidence, she began to enjoy the acclaim. She cites performing outside this country as a high point. "Mostly it was the act of going across the water. There's a point where the chip falls off the shoulder. Going across the water, I would eat more, drink more and lose weight. I decided that weight is a protective device, against the hurts of this country."
In her public life, the most searing disappointment was a movie deal about blues great Bessie Smith that never materialized. "Outside of my love for her, maybe I wanted to do it because in doing it I could also learn, via the acting, her-in-charge attitude," says Odetta. "When the deal fell through I went into a blue funk -- and thank God I had the music and teaching. Never again will I put all my expectations on the line."
Luck hasn't blessed her private life either. Married once, she is now divorced and lives what she calls the life of a hermit. "I don't know if I am a prude or a puritan, but there is somewhere in me a feeling that I took those wedding vows once and I don't get past that," she says.
In recent years, she has answered the call to lend her voice to a few causes, such as the busing crisis in Boston, and has made three stage appearances, but is looking forward to a return to the studio. "It's been a period of getting things together," she says, "and I needed to come to the studio with something in my head. I am holding out for good writers.I have some good stuff inside of me, fantastic experiences, but I am still chicken. I don't want to expose myself too much."