Odetta: ‘Folk royalty’ with valley ties has died
By John W. Barry
Odetta, the folk singer with the powerful voice who moved audiences and influenced fellow musicians for a half-century, has died. She was 77.
Odetta, who had many links to the Hudson Valley, died Tuesday of heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital, said Doug Yeager, her manager of 12 years. She was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure about three weeks ago, he said.
In spite of failing health that caused her to use a wheelchair, Odetta performed 60 concerts in the last two years, singing for 90 minutes at a time. Her singing ability never diminished, Yeager said.
Odetta, a contemporary and peer of Fishkill resident and folk singing icon Pete Seeger, performed in September at the Hudson River Arts Festival at Waryas Park in Poughkeepsie and in April, with Seeger at a benefit for Clearwater, the Poughkeepsie-based environmental organization, held at Beacon High School.
Seeger said during an interview with the Journal Wednesday he heard Woody Guthrie sing for the last time, and Odetta for the first time, at a party north of Los Angeles in 1950, during a song circle.
Odetta sat silent in a corner of the room, Seeger said, until she was coaxed into singing. She delivered a stunning rendition of Leadbelly’s “Take This Hammer.”
“It was so magnificent,” Seeger said. “We were stunned. I went up to her after and said, ‘How I wish Leadbelly was alive, so he could have heard you sing his song.’ ”
Seeger and Odetta performed together on occasion, at Carnegie Hall and in Central Park, among other places.
Seeger said Odetta’s mother had wanted her to be a classical singer, but “she was attracted to us folkies.”
During visits to the home in Fishkill where Seeger and his wife, Toshi, raised their family, Odetta would don a pair of boots and work clothes and help chop wood.
“She was very direct, very straightforward,” Seeger said. “Nothing fancy. She had a good sense of humor.”
Odetta performed at the World Peace Festival in Amenia in 2003 and at the Clearwater Festival in 1998. Odetta has also performed at the Towne Crier Cafe in Pawling many times over three decades.
“I would classify her as folk music royalty,” Towne Crier Cafe owner Phil Ciganer said. “She is a half-a-century of being an integral figure of American folk music and civil rights.”
Odetta attended a sneak peek screening of a documentary about Wavy Gravy at the 2006 Woodstock Film Festival. One of the highlights of that festival was the impromptu round of cheers and applause that greeted Odetta as she left the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock, where she had seen a documentary about the Dixie Chicks.
“The power would just come out of her like people wouldn’t believe,” Yeager said.
Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, she moved with her family to Los Angeles at age 6. Her father had died when she was young and she took her stepfather’s last name, Felious. Hearing her in glee club, a junior high teacher made sure she got music lessons, but Odetta became interested in folk music in her late teens and turned away from classical studies.
With her booming, classically trained voice and spare guitar, Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites.
First coming to prominence in the 1950s, she influenced Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other singers who had roots in the folk music boom.
An Odetta record on the turntable, listeners could close their eyes and imagine themselves hearing the sounds of spirituals and blues as they rang out from a weathered back porch or around a long-vanished campfire a century before.
“What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs; to understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer,” Time magazine wrote in 1960.
“She is a keening Irishwoman in ‘Foggy Dew,’ a chain-gang convict in ‘Take This Hammer,’ a deserted lover in ‘Lass from the Low Country,’ ” Time wrote.
Civil rights activism
Odetta called on her fellow blacks to “take pride in the history of the American Negro” and was active in the civil rights movement. When she sang at the March on Washington in August 1963, “Odetta’s great, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill,” The New York Times wrote.
She was nominated for a 1963 Grammy award for best folk recording for “Odetta Sings Folk Songs.” Two more Grammy nominations came in recent years, for her 1999 “Blues Everywhere I Go” and her 2005 album “Gonna Let It Shine.”
In 1999, she was honored with a National Medal of the Arts. Then-President Bill Clinton said her career showed “us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world.”
“I’m not a real folk singer,” she told The Washington Post in 1983. “I don’t mind people calling me that, but I’m a musical historian. I’m a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I’ve been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.”
Among her notable early works were her 1956 album “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” which included such songs as “Muleskinner Blues” and “Jack O’ Diamonds”; and her 1957 “At the Gate of Horn,” which featured the popular spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”