"I'M not a real folksinger," says Odetta, 53, who has been a stirring voice in the American folk music scene since she began appearing in coffeehouses and concerts in the early 1950s. "I don't mind people calling me that, but I'm a musical historian. I'm a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I've been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing."
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Odetta (she doesn't use her maiden name, Filious, or her married name, Gordon) was raised from age 6 in Los Angeles, where she discovered folk music in high school through a circle of friends. She taught herself guitar and proceeded to impress artists like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte with a voice one reviewer described as "all organ songs and cathedral colors."
Of the black female protest singers of the '50s and '60s, notably Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba, Odetta is the only one still performing regularly. Just returned from an engagement in the Virgin Islands, she will appear Friday at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium with Michael Cooney, who himself has been dubbed a "one-man folk festival."
The concert, presented by the Folklore Society, is a benefit for the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, which Odetta frequents to find songs and background for her performances. "Every so often something floats into the repertoire," she says. Odetta has maintained her timeless stage presence, still performing in brightly colored, flowing caftans, exotic headwraps and jewelry, with a stick burning incense attached to the neck of her guitar.
In a speaking voice as musical as her singing voice, Odetta says she continues to write and record her own material as well, although she is "still a bit shy about it. But every once in a while, a song will come bursting through. Usually I write songs that are encouraging, pleasing, appeasing, keep-the-spirit-up kind of things."
Asked to define the all-encompassing term "folk music," she says, "That would take a two-week seminar, and even then, all of us who would be speaking about it wouldn't agree on everything.
"I think humankind got to music and dance because of . . . fear," Odetta muses. "Fear of God, fear that the sun would not come back, many things. I think it developed as a way of worship or to appease something. We as human beings have been doing that for a long time. And folk music developed a long time before classical music. People have gotten more sophisticated, but there's still a need there to address those emotional areas."
"The world hasn't improved, and so there's always something to sing about," she says. "I speculate there's going to be another 'folk boom.' You see, when this country gets in trouble, we listen to ourselves. And this country is in a troubled time right now," she says with a throaty chuckle, "with the union-buster we have in the White House.
"Also, people need to hear more than just 'I found you and you left me' in a song."
Now divorced, the singer lives alone in New York City. "I have a hundred children," she says, "but none of my own."
Odetta is excited about her next big project: a new Broadway-bound musical, "New Orleans," written by novelist Toni Morrison ("Tar Baby"). Odetta will play a woman called Cobalt Blue in the show, which is about the closing down of Storyville, New Orleans' red-light district, in 1918. "Once again, I play a woman who is a bridge," Odetta says, "one who passes on history to the children. Toni Morrison wrote one of the songs especially for me. She said she decided then that she must have me in this show. They told her they couldn't find me.
" 'Well,' she said, 'she must be somewhere in the world!' "