The magic's in her music Folk: Songs helped Odetta break the shackles of anger and hate. Others say she's touched their lives, too.

January 08, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Folk music healed Odetta. It gave her a means of expression. And, like an old-time troubadour, she has carried her healing music around the world.

"I've had people come to me and thank me for healing them," she says on the phone from her New York apartment. "It wasn't me that did the healing. It was the song."

She can't explain the magic in music. But she knows that the words, the stories, the melodies touch some universal place deep inside each of us. This is why old songs from another time endure, she says. Sure, men have been to the moon and back, and the Hubble telescope has shown us the farthest reaches of space, but our joys, our fears, our sense of loneliness is virtually the same as that of a turn-of-the-century farmer.

Odetta, who turned 67 last week, brings her world of folk music to the Coffeehouse Concerts at Mays Chapel tomorrow evening. What can we expect from a performer whose career stretches back 50 years?

"They'll find me doing the best way I know how," she says. "I'll be very interested in Friday."

Her performance will be influenced by her current project, writing music for "Spirit North," a contemporary drama being produced by the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J. The play opens later this month. She doesn't go into too much detail about the work, saying: "I'm not a playwright. I'm not a writer."

She is, however, one of the great exponents of the American folk tradition. Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, Odetta grew up in Los Angeles and earned a degree in classical music and musical comedy from Los Angeles City College.

She considered a career in the opera, a laudable yet unreachable goal for a talented black woman in the 1940s. The great Marian Anderson would not debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera until the 1950s.

Odetta changed direction and performed in musical comedy, landing a role in the chorus of a local production of "Finian's Rainbow." While the play was on tour in San Francisco, an old junior high school friend took her to a party in the city's bohemian North Beach district. The music she heard, particularly the prison work songs, opened up a new world. They offered release.

"All the hate and frustration and anger that I felt within me, I could get all of that out through the prison songs," she says. "It gave me a canvas to paint on and get rid of all that anger and hate."

You can hear the work-song influence in her first album, "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues." On "Mule-skinner Blues," "Alabama Bound" and "Been in the Pen," her powerful voice rings out with a boldness, depth and passion that exhilarates the soul. This music, she once said, "straightened my back and kinked my hair." On " 'Buked and Scorned," she is hauntingly beautiful and melancholy, her voice accompanied by her spare guitar work.

That classic 1956 performance, released on Tradition Records, helped usher in the folk music revival that brought a generation of singer-songwriters to the stage. Before Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman, there was Pete Seeger, Ian and Sylvia, and Odetta.

She was strikingly different, ahead of her time in many ways. In the 1960s, when The Supremes were perfecting their Las Vegas lounge kitten act and Aretha Franklin was on her way to becoming "Soul Sister No. 1," Odetta offered a radically different ideal for black women.

Her music came from the time before the Great Migration to the big cities of the North and West. For some, her hair was an embarrassment. She had given up what she calls "the misery of the straightening comb," choosing to wear her hair in what would later be called an Afro.

"What's a natural today used to be called an Odetta," she says, her soft voice melodious and full of wisdom. "I cut my hair when I started learning the history of our folks."

She performed everywhere during the 1960s, lending her presence to campaigns for civil rights and human justice. She has recorded 25 albums and built a musical legacy without ever having a hit record.

"When she gets out on stage, she owns you. She's got you in the palm of her hand," says Joyse R. Sica, producer of the Mays Chapel concert series. "There's something majestic about her. You feel her knowledge and her experiences and you just sit there and -- 'God. It's Odetta.' "

When traveling these days, Odetta listens to country-and-western for its clever songwriting. Never one to fall into the mainstream, she keeps her radio at home tuned to WBIA-FM, the left-of-center Pacifica station in New York. Her performing repertoire is constantly changing, evolving, old songs dropping off after their healing mission is done.

" 'John Henry' was the first one that got up and walked out of my door," she says.

During one performance, a fan asked her to perform the famous song about the steel-driving man and his heroic race against a machine. Odetta obliged, but her playing and singing lacked the strength and fire of old, she says.

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