Colette’s Corner: Odetta

11 Feb


Odetta & Company:  Big Voices, Big Souls


One of America’s greatest folk-blues “roots” singers died in December.  That was Odetta Holmes, known to the world simply as “Odetta.”


Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930, and blessed with one of the most distinctive voices on record — deep, robust and rich with feeling.  Rather than go in a pop direction, as most of her equally blessed contemporaries did, Odetta  studied opera.  When she realized “no one would hire a black girl to sing at the Metropolitan Opera,”  she delved into  indigenous American music and became a leading figure in the coffee house/folk music movement that sprang up in the early 1960s.  (Her full NY Times bio .)


While many white artists were also dipping into the traditional American bag, Odetta sang African American folk songs  and blues with tremendous authority, grace and power, and a regal bearing.   She was one of the first black stars to sport an Afro hairdo in the 1960s, championing a natural look that gained popularity later.   And she was very committed to and active in the civil rights movement — marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and performing a concert at the White House for President John F. Kennedy.


Though Odetta’s star dimmed a bit as the folk boom ended, she had already gained a big following through folk clubs, hit records and a musical bonding with Harry Belafonte, who toured with her and called Odetta  a “chief influence on my career.”   Other famous singers also named her as a major inspiration — including  Joan Baez (to whom she was “a goddess”),  Janis Joplin (who first got excited about the blues, as a teenager, by  listening to Odetta ) and Bob Dylan, who wrote of her:


” 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…”


This first clip is how I best remember Odetta.  She’s performing on a 2006 public TV show here, in which  she sang songs I enjoyed live during her concert tour the same year and which she recorded on a disc (“Blues Everywhere I Go”) which I highly recommend to fellow blues babes: 


  — “You Don’t Know My Mind”


Here she is on an  early record,  doing a short rendition of the slave work song, “Water Boy,” in her most dramatic  and stirring fashion:



In her own quiet, dignified manner, Odetta broke a lot of racial barriers.   Here she is on TV’s mainstream variety hour,  “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show,” singing a great Woody Guthrie tune:


 — Woody’s ” Pastures of Plenty”  (and “Nine Pound Hammer”) with Tennessee Ernie Ford


She also popularized a lot of songs by the incomparable Leadbelly.  Here’s her wonderful take on “The Midnight Special,” in that  2006 TV concert:



Odetta’s passing got me to thinking about other female blues-folk singers  with that river-deep voice and soulfulness, who were probably influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by her.


Here are a few:         


 — Joan Armatrading “Down to Zero”


   — Ruthie Foster — “Woke Up This Mornin'”  — which she dedicates to Odetta


 — Tracy Chapman — “Across the Lines”


And last but not least, someone I plan to do an entire set on soon, the great Mavis Staples, who was actually more like Odetta’s contemporary (about a decade younger).  This song seems apropos — Odetta has “come home”:


 — “Waiting for My Child to Come Home,”  Mavis Staples


I’ll finish with this very short clip of Odetta from the Newport Folk Festival — a wonderful uptempo tune that features her excellent guitar work, and great 1960s vibe.   Rest in peace, dear lady:


 — Odetta at Newport 





3 responses to “Colette’s Corner: Odetta

  1. colette

    February 14, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Anybody out there listening? Would love to know what you think of Odetta, whether you’ve ever heard of her or not…..thanks!

  2. blueberry

    February 15, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Yes, I’ve heard of Odette, but not very familar with her work, which is unfortunate because she obviously had great talent. Enjoyed your biographic sketch of her, amazing to read of her trailblazing. Regal does seem to be an apt word to describe her. Tracy Chapman has long been a favorite of mine – her voice and presence are incredible.

  3. colette

    February 15, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks Blueberry! Always fun to share, and be turned on to new discoveries myself.

    We will not see Odetta’s ilk, again — she was truly one of a kind….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: