[Marxism] NYT: Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Dec 2 23:03:41 MST 2008

20 minute video: "The Last Word"

December 3, 2008
Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77


Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the
strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights
movement, died Tuesday. She was 77.

The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager.

He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama’s

Odetta — she was born Odetta Holmes — sang at coffeehouses
and Carnegie Hall and released several albums, becoming one
of the most widely known and influential folk-music artists
of the 1950s and 60s.

Her voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white
images of the freedom marchers who walked the roads of
Alabama and Mississippi and the boulevards of Washington in
quest of an end to racial discrimination.

Rosa Parks, the woman who started the boycott of segregated
buses in Montgomery, Ala., was once asked which songs meant
the most to her. She replied, “All of the songs Odetta

Odetta sang at the August 1963 march on Washington, a
pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Her song that
day was “O Freedom,” dating back to slavery days.

Born in Birmingham on Dec. 31, 1930, Odetta Holmes spent
her first six years in the depths of the Depression. The
music of that time and place — in particular prison song
and work songs recorded in the fields of the deep South —
shaped her life.

“They were liberation songs,” she said in a videotaped
interview with The New York Times in 2007, for its online
feature “The Last Word.” “You’re walking down life’s road,
society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn
you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in
the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist
upon your life.”

Her father, Reuben Holmes, died when she was young; she and
her mother, Flora Sanders, who later remarried, moved to
Los Angeles in 1937. Three years later, Odetta discovered
she could sing.

“A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe 
I should study,” she recalled. “But I myself didn’t have
anything to measure it by.”

She found her own voice by listening to blues, jazz and
folk music from the African-American and Anglo-American
traditions. She earned a music degree from Los Angeles City
College. Her training in classical music and musical
theater was “a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with
my life,” she said.

“The folk songs were — the anger,” she emphasized.

In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said:
“School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a
sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, 
I learned through folk music.”

In 1950, Odetta began singing professionally in a West
Coast production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow,” but she
found a stronger calling in the bohemian coffeehouses of
San Francisco. “We would finish our play, we’d go to the
joint, and people would sit around playing guitars and
singing songs and it felt like home,” she said in the 2007
interview with The Times.

She began singing in nightclubs, cutting a striking figure
with her guitar and her close-cropped hair. (She noted late
in life that she was one of the first black performers in
the United States to wear an “Afro” hairstyle — “they used
to call it ‘the Odetta,’ ” she said.)

Her voice plunged deep and soared high, and her songs
blended the personal and the political, the theatrical and
the spiritual. Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads
and Blues,” resonated with an audience hearing old songs
made new.

“The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was
Odetta,” Bob Dylan said, referring to that record, in a
1978 interview with Playboy . He said he heard “something
vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that
record.” It was her first, and the songs were “Mule
Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Water Boy,” “ ‘Buked and

Her blues and spirituals led directly to her work for the
civil-rights movement. They were two rivers running
together, she said in her interview with The Times. 
The words and music captured “the fury and frustration that 
I had growing up.” They were heard by the people who were
present at the creation of the civil rights movement,
people who “heard on the grapevine about this lady who was
singing these songs.” She played countless benefits; the
money she raised underwrote the work of keeping the
movement alive.

Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with Martin
Luther King in Selma and performed for President John F.
Kennedy. But after King was assassinated in 1968, the wind
went out of the sails of the civil-rights movement and the
songs of protest and resistance that had been the
movement’s soundtrack. Odetta’s fame flagged for years
thereafter. She recorded fewer records, although she
performed on stage as a singer and an actor, during the
1970s and 1980s. She revived her career in the 1990s, 
and thereafter appeared regularly on “A Prairie Home
Companion,” the popular public-radio show. In 1999 she
recorded her first album in 14 years, and that year
President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Endowment
for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities from. In 2003
she received a “Living Legend” tribute from the Library of
Congress and the Kennedy Center Visionary Award.

Odetta was married three times: to Don Gordon, to Gary
Shead, and, in 1977, to the blues musician Iverson Minter,
known professionally as Louisiana Red. The first marriages
ended in divorce; Mr. Minter moved to Germany in 1983 to
pursue his performing career.

She was singing and performing well into the 21st century,
and her influence stayed strong through the decades.

In April 2007, half a century after Mr. Dylan heard her,
she was onstage at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce
Springsteen. She turned one of his songs, “57 Channels,”
into a chanted poem, and Mr. Springsteen came out from the
wings to call it “the greatest version” of the song he had
ever heard.

Reviewing a December 2006 performance, James Reed of the
Boston Globe wrote: “Odetta’s voice is still a force of
nature — something commented upon endlessly as folks exited
the auditorium — and her phrasing and sensibility for a
song have grown more complex and shaded.”

The critic called her “a majestic figure in American music,
a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign


     Los Angeles, California
     Editor-in-Chief, CubaNews
     "Cuba - Un Paraíso bajo el bloqueo"

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