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PRINT April 2009

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Odetta

SOME ARTISTS CREATE visions of the future. Others illustrate how to get there by showing us where we have been. In doing so, they lay out what we are up against and remind us of our strength, fortitude, and resilience. Their work accompanies us on the journey, joins us in struggle, points out the way, and carries us when necessary. Odetta, who passed away this past December, at age seventy-seven, was of this latter group. She was singular, awe inspiring, and real.

With a voice that was recognizable from the first note, Odetta, a woman known by one name, was a historian and an activist, a culture bearer and a freedom fighter. Like Joseph’s coat, her voice had many colors. It could be soft and gentle, as in “When I Was a Young Girl” and “All the Pretty Little Horses,” or a rhythmic and hard-driving force of nature, as in “If I Had a Hammer.” She was most often described as a contralto, but her range knew no limits or boundaries. Singing high falsetto one minute, digging deep and guttural the next, she was equally at home with the blues, spirituals, and work songs of African Americans as with Anglo-American and Irish folk songs. And yet, whatever form Odetta chose, she was first and fore most a spellbinding storyteller. In light of this power, it is not surprising that she became one of the major voices of the civil rights movement. When she sang “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” whether in a concert hall or in an intimate club, she became a prophet herself—not in the sense of foretelling the future, but in speaking truth to power. The walls would literally shake with the final notes and the word down. In the words of fellow activist and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, “She sang all the way in over and through.” To hear Odetta live was also an embodied experience: The sound would resonate through her listeners’ bodies. And even as she narrated an ancient battle, one as old as humankind, she made it resonate with contemporary struggles against white supremacy, war, and economic exploitation, imbuing her audience with a sense of power and possibility. The walls came tumbling down in Jericho, she seemed to be saying, and they will come down again.

Although Odetta of course credited Martin Luther King Jr. with leading and directing the civil rights movement, she understood the real force of that engagement to be in hundreds of anonymous communities nationwide. In interviews, she often talked about community activists such as Rosa Parks and other people deeply engaged in social struggles in their own neighborhoods even before King arrived. For Odetta, such ordinary people laid the groundwork and prepared for when King came into leadership. Like Ella Baker, Odetta understood that social movements were built from the ground up, and she likewise saw her own role as that of servant to the cause. In 1963, she performed at the March on Washington, singing “We Shall Overcome” and something that she had recorded as the “Freedom Trilogy”: a medley featuring “O Freedom,” “Come and Go with Me to That Land,” and “I’m On My Way.” And when the marchers finally made it to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, Odetta sang for them upon their arrival. But she had been singing music that offered a testament to both suffering and resistance well before civil rights organizers discovered her and asked her to use her voice to help feed and sustain the movement’s participants. As she recalled, “People heard of what I was doing, our intellectuals and our politicians, and what I was doing—the folk music—fit into what their work was, and so they called me in. And I was really the shy kid sitting on the side waiting for them to tell me, or someone to tell me, that it was time to go and do the song.” She also said: “The music put me in a position where those who were actually working on the problems could come and I could be of service.”

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930, Odetta had experienced Jim Crow segregation firsthand before moving to Los Angeles with her family when she was six years old. It was on the train to California that she recalled the “first big wound” inflicted on her by institutionalized racism. The black passengers were removed from the car where they had been seated, and Odetta never forgot the humiliation and pain of that experience. She attributed another wound to an educational system that taught about happy, singing slaves.

Ironically, that same educational system would lead to Odetta’s musical career. A teacher in Los Angeles recognized her talent and encouraged her to take formal music training. She was being groomed as the next Marian Anderson. Throughout Odetta’s teenage years she studied opera and Western classical music. But while she loved Anderson and the Western classical tradition, she knew it wasn’t a good fit. She was performing in a production of Finian’s Rainbow when she discovered both folk music and the Bay Area’s bohemian scene. There she began her reeducation. She learned to play guitar and immersed herself in the history of the blues, work songs, and spirituals. She listened to the Smithsonian Folkways recordings and read interviews with musicians by collectors such as Alan Lomax. She made trips to the Library of Congress and began buying records. The enslaved sang, it was true, but they were far from happy: They sang in order to protest and transcend their condition, and they and their progeny left Odetta a treasure trove of songs, textures, and rhythms that she made her own. Finding a history that had been absent in her schoolbooks, Odetta said the music “straightened my back and kinked my hair.” (In fact, although Abbey Lincoln is perhaps more famous for being the first female black performer to wear her hair natural, she credits Odetta with having inspired her to do so. Odetta later recalled, “What is called an Afro or natural used to be called an Odetta.”)

In the mid-1960s, Odetta, Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Miriam Makeba signaled a shift in the iconography of black women singers. They were not gospel divas, blues queens, or sassy R&B performers. They were not supper club chanteuses or ladies of jazz. Or, to put it differently, they were not only these things. They were politically outspoken, Pan-African in their sensibilities, diverse in their repertoires, uncontrolled by record-industry categorization, and defiantly black in their aesthetic. Yet even among this group of extraordinary women Odetta was unique. Unlike the others, she did not become politicized after gaining fame. She already possessed a passionate anger at injustice when the folk music scene, a politically progressive space, provided her with a vehicle through which to channel that anger. The songs, she said, healed her. She was always explicitly political, most obviously singing against racial injustice and economic exploitation. She challenged gender norms as well—not only did she perform songs associated with men, especially with Lead Belly, but when she sang blues and work songs she would inhabit the persona of the prisoner on a chain gang. It was in this genre that her voice was most powerful, itself becoming like a percussion instrument. A shy young woman, Odetta would completely give herself over to the songs.

It wasn’t until later in her life that she recorded music made famous by the blues queens, to whom she paid tribute on the 1999 album Blues Everywhere I Go. Here we get the socially conscious “Unemployment Blues,” “Homeless Blues,” and the “W.P.A. Blues,” but also “Oh, Papa” and a beautiful version of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Odetta told interviewer LaShonda Barnett: “When my generation really started to listen to the women blues singers of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, we heard and felt energy. So, in response to that energy, the way we approached those songs was to holler! . . . We thought that energy came from hollering. Ms. [Alberta] Hunter would just lean back and throw it out at you. She left you alone to take it wherever you felt you were big enough and bad enough to take it.” But Odetta doesn’t holler on Blues Everywhere I Go. She plays with her upper range, and then she almost sing-talks the lyrics—listen to the second verse of “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” It is understated and subtle, playful yet sincere. Significantly, Odetta did not accompany herself on guitar on this album; instead she worked with a band that included a guitarist, pianist, bass player, and drummer. As a result, like the blues queens of old, she could concentrate wholly on the lyrics.

If she attributed much of what she learned about singing to Hunter and other famous and nonfamous singers of black folk music, she was herself the inspiration for numerous other artists. Bob Dylan famously described Odetta as “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing.” Similarly, Joan Baez noted: “She was my goddess. I learned everything she sang.” Odetta would never acquire the fame of Dylan or Baez, but her legacy has even further reach than theirs. As a young Spelman College student, Bernice Johnson Reagon was taken by Howard Zinn, her history professor, to hear both Baez and Odetta. Experiencing Odetta proved life-changing for the young activist singer, who began performing with the SNCC Freedom Singers around the same time and would later go on to found the all-woman a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. According to Reagon, “Odetta reached back a path to me and others looking for ways to find our own way of creating.” Further, Reagon has said, “She was just . . . what I needed to begin my life as a freedom fighter and a freedom singer.”

Both a freedom fighter and a freedom singer, Odetta left us a body of work that has yet to be fully explored. Just as you think you know her, listen again to the beautiful, haunting 1957 record At the Gate of Horn. To listen closely to this album is to hear anew and to know that there is still work to be done, and that nevertheless there is great beauty in the struggle.

Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University in New York.