Odetta died last night in New York. She was 77. After suffering for several years with heart and lung problems, she entered Lenox Hill Hospital at the end of October for treatment of kidney failure. Her manager, Douglas Yeager, said that her hope of singing at President Obama’s inauguration in January helped to keep her alive for weeks despite a terminal prognosis.
When she sang at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, The New York Times reported that her “great, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill.”
Two years ago, James Reed of the Boston Globe wrote about her influence:
Even as a young, naive music lover, I was aware of Odetta’s legacy. Here was a woman, now 75, who sported a closely cropped Afro in the 1950s, long before Angela Davis became a pinup for “black is beautiful” pride. She looked just like she sounded: like royalty. Dylan famously claimed that after hearing “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” he immediately switched from electric to acoustic guitar. And stapled to the last sheet of her 14-page biography is a list of people who have praised Odetta, ranging from Janis Joplin and Maya Angelou to Spike Lee and Bill Clinton.
As seen in last year’s Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home,” Odetta was fierce. Fierce enough to be ahead of her time. Cast in a lone spotlight, her guitar (nicknamed “Baby”) held high as she strummed it violently, she bellowed “Water Boy” as if it hurt her. Then, without warning, she barked like . . . well, like a wounded animal.
Reviewing one of her concerts that year, he wrote that she was “a majestic figure in American music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today.”
Last August Odetta was the subject of an installment of Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Among the videos included was the “Water Boy” segment of the Scorsese video described so vividly (and accurately) by Mr. Reed.
Time magazine online today pays due —and eloquent— tribute to Odetta’s career and influence:
Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr., called her the queen of American folk music. Odetta’s stage presence was regal enough: planted on stage like an oak tree no one would dare cut down, wearing a guitar high on her chest, she could envelop Carnegie Hall with her powerful contralto as other vocalists might fill a phone booth. This was not some pruny European monarch but a stout, imperious queen of African-American music. She used that amazing instrument to bear witness to the pain and perseverance of her ancestors. Some folks sing songs. Odetta testified.
For a handful of black singers, their discography is an aural history, centuries deep, of abduction, enslavement, social and sexual abuse by the whites in power — and of the determination first to outlive the ignominy branded on the race, then to overcome it. In her commanding presence, charismatic delivery and determination to sing black truth to white power, Odetta was the female Paul Robeson.
During the folk boom, each Odetta gig, in coffee house or a concert hall, was a master class of work songs, folk songs, church songs, and an eloquent tutorial in raw American history. Identifiable from the first syllable, her voice fused the thrill of gospel, the techniques of art song, — the wisdom that subtlety sometimes trumps volume — and the desperate wail of blues. If a line could be drawn from Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin, from Mahalia Jackson to Maria Callas, it would have to go through Odetta.
Today’s New York Times online edition offers an informative and moving 2007 interview as part of its “The Last Word” series.
Odetta appeared at the beginning of this year on the Tavis Smiley Show. Confined to a wheel chair and in frail health, but in full voice and spirit, she sang “Keep On Moving It On”. Her life and legacy belie the song’s words: “Ain’t much that can be changed sitting down singing my song.”