- Rashod Ollison
Odetta (31 Dec. 1930–2 Dec. 2008), folk and blues singer was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, to Ruben Holmes, who died when she was young, and Flora Sanders. During the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, at about age six, Odetta moved to Los Angeles with her mother and younger sister. Shortly afterward the girl discovered a budding love for music and singing. Like many black singers of her generation, Odetta’s musical talent was initially nurtured in church. At thirteen she started professional voice lessons, which were briefly interrupted when her mother could no longer afford them. She soon found a benefactor in puppeteer Harry Burnette, who paid for her to continue.
A year after graduating Belmont High School in 1948, Odetta landed her first professional singing gig: a role in the Los Angeles production of Finian’s Rainbow, staged in the summer of 1949 at the Greek Theatre. The exposure opened doors for Odetta’s career, initially as a performer in musicals. The following summer she was in a San Francisco production of Guys and Dolls. After that show closed she returned to Los Angeles and briefly supported herself as a housekeeper. Still, she had gained traction as a performer during her time in those stage productions, cultivating a supportive network. When she wasn’t performing Odetta hung out with fellow actors in San Francisco’s bohemian coffee shops, where she sang folk songs. She attended Los Angeles City College, where she studied classical music and musical theater, but didn’t earn a degree. She later admitted, however, that none of it had much influence on her art.
A move to New York in 1953 proved to be fruitful as she soon secured a string of nightclub dates. At a time when Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge set the standard for black female performers, the young Odetta stood apart: full-figured and dark-skinned with blazing high cheekbones, framed by a neat, close-cropped natural. Beyond her striking looks, there was her unforgettable voice, resonant and assured, soaring to pure highs and plunging to rich lows.
The experience in musical theater not only helped Odetta mature as a vocalist, but she also discovered more of her range. When she started the young artist was considered a coloratura soprano but eventually became more of a mezzo-soprano. As she ventured beyond musical theater and into folk, the experience led to other discoveries in her range, running from coloratura to baritone.
In 1954 as R&B took shape via the raucous hits of Ruth Brown and the urbane blues of Dinah Washington, Odetta’s debut album, The Tin Angel, appeared. The now-obscure album is a mostly eclectic collection with some cuts recorded live, with accompaniment by Larry Mohr on vocals and banjo. Odetta later described the voices who inspired her: “They didn't just fall down into the cracks or the holes. And that was an incredible example for me.” Her early works were not as commercially successful as her later records, but they had an impact. Rosa Parks, for example, cited Odetta’s early music as an influence.
The Tin Angel was followed three years later with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, perhaps her most influential album, spare in its arrangements with just Odetta and her guitar. Her robust voice powers through a mix of traditional songs and others made famous by Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers. The way Odetta bends notes and plays the guitar presages by a decade the style of early Joni Mitchell. Bob Dylan cited the album as a favorite of his.
Odetta reached the peak of her fame in the early to mid-1960s during the folk revival, her most productive period during which she released sixteen albums including Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1960), Christmas Spirituals (1960), Odetta and the Blues (1962), It’s a Mighty World (1964), and Odetta Sings Dylan (1965). She also appeared in the 1961 film adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. No matter the song—an old spiritual, a lowdown blues number, a sorrowful folk tune—Odetta created a rainbow of emotions when she sang. Although the shades were often dark, she still managed to radiate hope. She also earned the nickname “the voice of the civil rights movement.” She performed at the March on Washington and for President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, as the movement’s soundtrack became funkier and more aggressive, Odetta’s fame began to fade. But she continued to perform at folk and blues festivals around the world. In 1974 she appeared in the film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson. Her recording output became more sporadic through the years, with only two releases between 1977 and 1997. On a personal level, in 1977 she married Iverson Minter, a blues musician who performed as Louisiana Red. Her first two marriages, to Don Gordon and Gary Shead, had ended in divorce. Her marriage to Minter ended in 1983. She had no children.
As the twentieth century closed, Odetta again began to release albums with some regularity, including the well-received 1999 collection, Blues Everywhere I Go, which garnered a Grammy nomination. That year she also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton. In the 2000s, as she entered her seventies, Odetta was busier than she’d been in decades, appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman soon after the 9/11 attacks and a few years later opening shows for jazz singer Madeline Peyroux. In April 2007 Odetta appeared at Carnegie Hall, performing in a tribute to Bruce Springsteen. The next summer, despite poor health, Odetta went on tour, singing from a wheelchair. She made her last appearance in Toronto in October 2008 before returning to New York City, where she died from heart failure.
The world of pop may have never made a place for her, but Odetta, regal with a natural hairstyle worn years before it became a politically driven fashion statement, was never a coy pop darling. Armed with her guitar and a large repertoire of work songs, spirituals, blues, and pop, she cemented her place in the mostly whitewashed world of folk. Her music and singing conveyed messages of hope, inspiration, and resilience.
For more on Odetta and her role in the American folk music revival, see Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970 (2002). A Lesson with Odetta: Exploring Life, Music and Song (2011) is an interview available on DVD. La Shonda Katrice Barnett, ed., I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft (2007) contains an interview with Odetta. Joan Barthel, “Odetta Speaks Through Her Songs,” The New York Times, 7 March 1965, is a significant profile of the artist at the height of her popularity. An obituary appeared in The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2008. The obituary contains the quotation above.
- Dandridge, Dorothy (1922-1965), movie actress and singer
- Washington, Dinah (? Aug. 1924–14 December 1963), singer
- Parks, Rosa (1913-2005), civil rights activist
- Lead Belly (1888-1949), folk singer and composer
- Rodgers, Jimmie (08 September 1897–26 May 1933), singer and musician
- Kennedy, John F., Jr. (1960-1999), American icon, publisher, and lawyer
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. (15 January 1929–04 April 1968), Baptist minister and civil rights leader