Every Sunday, The Soundtrack of Our Lives looks back at some of the music that was popular, and the performers who were influential, around the time Richard Nixon was elected President.
At the March on Washington in 1963, one of the artists who performed for the crowd before Dr. King spoke was Odetta. She had already been famous for several years as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”. Before Washington she had sung at Selma. And not long after she played for President Kennedy and his cabinet on a nationally-televised civil rights special Dinner with the President.
This role and these commitments has tended to overshadow the seminal role she played in the establishment of folk music as a popular form during the 1960s.
It took the middle class white troubadours —Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary— to move folk music into the mainstream.
It was Ms. Baez who truly brought it all back home by making the cover of Time in November 1962. Scoring that spot doesn’t mean all that much these days; but in the ’50s and ’60s it was the secular equivalent of canonization. When her portrait (not particularly flattering but very period) appeared in that hallowed place, it was a clear signal that this new music —with its message, its lifestyle, its artists, and its vast new campus audience— was more than just a fad. When Time took notice America paid attention.
But a decade before Ms. Baez even arrived at Harvard Square or Mr. Dylan ambled into Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, Odetta had been on the road and in the studio. It’s no disrespect to them to say that Odetta was a giant on whose shoulders they were able to stand — as they have been the first to acknowledge.
Bob Dylan: “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers [Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues] in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson. … [That album was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record. It was her first and the songs were- ‘Mule Skinner’, ‘Waterboy’, ‘Jack of Diamonds’, ”Buked and Scorned’.”
In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary on Bob Dylan, Odetta’s influence was discussed and this short clip of her distinctive hammer-hits-rock version of Avery Robinson’s 1922 prison work song “Waterboy” was featured:
In some respects Odetta had been born just a shade too soon (in Birmingham, Alabama, on 31 December 1930) and was maybe just a tad too talented. The fact that she didn’t write original material undoubtedly limited her commercial potential (a limitation Judy Collins and others —including Ms. Baez herself— soon set themselves to overcoming). And her repertoire was so diverse that she never slotted easily into a single niche which is never good for building blockbuster sales or arena audiences. And her commitment to causes, and her availability for radical rallies and protests, was considered disturbing or risky by many managers and bookers.
An Odetta performance or LP could include classic Child ballads and traditional American folk songs, Negro spirituals and slave songs, civil rights anthems, foursquare hymns, weary love or strident protest blues, outright jazz, and, increasingly, the original compositions of the new generation. Christmas Spirituals was released in 1960; Odetta and the Blues appeared in 1962; Odetta Sings Dylan followed in ‘65.
She showed off the warmth and breadth of her range when she joined Tennessee Ernie Ford on the hymn “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” on his popular network variety show. Here’s how the show’s archives describe it:
One of folk music’s most stunningly original performers is Ernie’s guest for this March 10, 1960 show. In one of only two network television appearances in five years, Odetta graces this Ford Show with some of the most awesome music and powerful performances ever captured on kinescope. At a time when folk was on the cusp of completely changing the American cultural landscape, every other prime-time variety show out there was playing it decidedly safe and definitely conservative; booking The Kingston Trio, The Dillards or The Smothers Brothers. “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” was about about as controversial as the Big Three wanted to be. Odetta, however, was anything but conservative. A major voice among the rising ranks of folk artists in Boston, Connecticut and The Village, she had become, by 1960, one of the principal influences and architects of the new wave of social protest. …On the Ernie FordShow!?
Odetta Holmes grew up in Los Angeles. She started classical voice training at 13 and by 19 she had a degree in music from LA City College. She found her first jobs touring in road companies of Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls.
She settled down in San Francisco where she felt immediately at home in the burgeoning coffee house scene that combined caffeine with poetry and music and protest. She worked cleaning houses so she could play gigs.
She had a naturally commanding stage presence, and before long she was headlining in important night clubs, including San Francisco’s hungry i, Chicago’s Gate of Horn, and New York’s Blue Angel.
A gig at the legendary Chicago venue lent its name to one of her first hit LPs — 1957’s At the Gate of Horn —although it was a studio album. Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1960) was recorded live, followed by Odetta at Town Hall (1962).
Odetta participated in and performed at civil rights rallies and marches. Her signature song (which she sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963) was the “Spiritual Trilogy” comprised of “Oh Freedom”, Come And Go With Me”, and “I’m On My Way”.
After the Newport Folk Festival infamously plugged itself in for the first time in 1965, the folk movement started taking a decided turn towards folk pop and folk rock — the sound increasingly amplified not only by electrical current but by controlled substances. As folk became more flexible and market oriented, she remained committed to the causes she believed in and that made her less commercial by comparison to her erstwhile folkie admirers.
Although her recording slowed down in the late 1970s, Odetta continued to perform in colleges and clubs and at civil rights events right through the ’80s. She appeared in a couple of films including the TV classic The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
In the late 1990s, she signed with a new management and returned to the studio for To Ella — a tribute album to her recently-deceased friend Ella Fitzgerald. Blues Everywhere I Go, her tribute to famous blues singers, won a Grammy nomination in 2000.
David Letterman decided to bring The Late Show back on the air during the week of 17 September 2001; on the 19th, Odetta was the musical guest, backed by the Boys Choir of Harlem. Here’s how the Home Office’s diarist remembers that night on the show’s website:
They started with “We Shall Overcome,” which led into “This Little Light of Mine.” During the commercial break Odetta blessed us with “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing Grace” gets me every time. It’s a real “lump-in-the-throat” producer. I’m sure I’ll be hearing it quite a bit on the bagpipes in the days ahead.
As she has added on the years, she has added on the honors. In 1999 President Clinton presented her with the National Endowment for the Arts National Medal. She noted that it was a special honor to receive it in Constitution Hall on the same stage on which, sixty years before, her friend Marian Anderson had been forbidden to sing.
In 2004, Odetta received a Kennedy Center “Visionary Award” along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005 the Library of Congress presented Odetta with a rare “Living Legend Award”.
For several years she had a productive performance and recording collaboration with Seth Farber (who accompanies her on the following clip as he did above on “Midnight Special/This Little Light of Mine”). Here is “The House of the Rising Sun” from a 2005 concert. Her version of the song alone is simply definitive. And her a capella interpolation of the old Anglo-American ballad “One Morning in May” is riveting.
Any notion that age or honor have made Odetta lose her bite will be dispelled by a viewing of a recent concert performance of Leadbelly’s 1938 “Bourgeois Blues” which manages to be scathing and rollicking in almost equal parts. Its embedding has been disabled (my guess would be by the Washington D.C. Chamber of Commerce) so I can’t do the work for you. But if you take my advice —and when have I ever misled you?—-you will watch it by clicking here.
Her most recent album is last year’s Grammy-nominated Gonna Let It Shine — a live concert recording of Christmas songs.
In 2005, on the eve of her 75th birthday, she talked with Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition about her early life. She serenaded him with “Amazing Grace” and sang the segment out with an abstract account of “Home on the Range”. In January of this year she appeared on the Tavis Smiley Show. It’s an excellent interview and worth listening to.
Here’s a clip from that show’s conclusion — her performance of “Keep On Movin’ It On”. This is a master class in authority, mastery, restraint, presence, commitment, joy, spirit, and soul — and all in two minutes. Odetta will be 78 on New Year’s Eve; she is now confined to performing in a wheel chair, but she shows that you don’t need legs to give a song wings.