Odetta Holmes was a singer, actor, songwriter, and a human rights activist, often referred to as "the voice of the Civil Rights Movement." Her musical repertoire consisted largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she was influential musically and ideologically to many of the key figures of the folk revival of that time.
Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but grew up in Los Angeles, California. She studied music nights at Los Angeles City College while employed as a domestic worker. She had operatic training from the age of 13 and her mother hoped she would follow the opera singer Marian Anderson, but Odetta doubted a large black girl would ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre. She later joined the national touring company of the musical Finian’s Rainbow in 1949.
While on tour, Odetta met an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco and after 1950 concentrated on folk singing. A solo career followed, with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957). Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963’s best-selling folk albums.
Odetta’s 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 to end racial discrimination. The 1930s prison and work songs recorded in the fields of the South shaped her life. "They were liberation songs," she said in an interview. She added: "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" (from her obituary in New York Times, December 3, 2008).
Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger led to the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, was once asked which songs meant the most to her. "All of the songs Odetta sings," she replied. One of those songs was "I’m on My Way," sung during the pivotal 1963 civil rights march on Washington.
"The folk songs were—the anger," Odetta emphasized. In a National Public Radio interview in 2005 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 1961 Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her "The Queen of American folk music." In the same year the duo Harry Belafonte and Odetta made #32 in the UK Singles Chart with the song "There’s a Hole in My Bucket."
Broadening her musical scope, Odetta released music of a more "jazz" style on albums like Odetta Sings the Blues (1962). Odetta also acted in several films, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
Beginning in 1998, she re-focused her energies on recording and touring and her career took on a major resurgence. The CD To Ella (recorded live and dedicated to her old friend Ella Fitzgerald) was released in 1998.
The 2005 documentary film No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, highlights her musical influence on Bob Dylan, the subject of the documentary. The film contains an archive clip of Odetta performing "The Waterboy," "Mule Skinner Blues," and "No More Auction Block for Me."
In 2006 the Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their Lifetime Achievement Award. In February 2007, The International Folk Alliance awarded Odetta as Traditional Folk Artist of the Year.
In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched another North American tour. She made a special appearance on June 30 at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. She opened the show with "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and finished the first set with a duet of "Blowin’ In The Wind." Her last "big concert" was in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008. In November 2008, Odetta’s health began to decline. She had hoped to perform at Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009. Odetta died on December 2 from heart disease in New York City.
Compiled from various Internet sources by the Z Staff.