Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In Memoriam: Odetta

Born on New Year’s Eve in 1930, Odetta would have been 78 today. And had she lived a few weeks beyond this, she would have realized her last dream, to sing at Barak Obama’s inauguration. When I think of Odetta, I think of three things: spirituals, the Civil Rights Movement, and that voice.

Odetta: Muleskinner‘s Blues


As a child, Odetta loved to sing, The first music she was exposed to, and her original inspiration for singing, was the music of the black church. And somewhere in her journey through life, she also heard the blues. A musically astute bystander, overhearing her at the age of ten, advised Odetta’s mother to wait until she was thirteen, and then start her on classical voice lessons. The lessons lasted for several years, and help shape this amazing instrument. It was at age twenty that Odetta first heard folk music, and fell in love with it.

Odetta: Spiritual Trilogy: Oh Freedom, Come and Go With Me, I‘m on My Way


Odetta’s spirituality was tied up in everything she did. Her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement certainly fit in with this. Many of her gigs at first were at civil rights demonstrations. One of her proudest achievements was singing “Oh Freedom” at the demonstration in Washington where Martin Luther King Delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Odetta: Blues Everywhere I Go


After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Civil Rights Movement began to split into factions, each of which believed that it knew the best way to continue the fight. For Odetta, this meant that it became harder to find the types of gigs she was used to. So, as she sought ways to expand her audience, she tried to broaden her sound. “Blues Everywhere I Go” is the title track from an album recorded late in her career, which paid tribute to female blues singers who had inspired Odetta. It is the only time I know of that she “plugged in”.

But, no matter what she sang, it was still Odetta. She was still the owner of that amazing voice. In her hands, even secular songs became expressions of the human spirit. And so they remain, even now that she is gone.

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