Odetta's voice rumbled deep in our souls


December 07, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Just below the resonant layers of pain and anguish, hope warmed the mighty voice of Odetta. No matter the song - a century-old spiritual, a lowdown blues number, a mournful folk tune - the Alabama legend used a palette of emotions when she sang. Though the shades were often dark, she still managed to transport and buoy the listener.

The world of pop may have never made a place for her. But Odetta, with her regal bearing and natural hairstyle worn years before it became a politically driven fashion statement, was never a coy pop darling. Armed with her guitar, she had more purposeful messages to deliver.

At the peak of Odetta's career, streets across the country were aflame with riots and protests. The overarching theme of her music and the feeling behind her singing conveyed a message of resilience: We all can overcome. Little wonder she was known around the world as the "voice of the civil rights movement." None other than Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger sparked the historic 1955 boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., was inspired by the early music of Odetta.

The celebrated folk artist died on Tuesday of heart disease. She was 77. For nearly 60 years, Odetta enthralled fans in coffeehouses, at European festivals and inside storied venues such as Carnegie Hall. One of her most legendary performances was on Aug. 28, 1963, at the March on Washington, where she sang "I'm on My Way" and "Oh Freedom."

Odetta's roiling, soul-deep renderings of blues, ballads and protest songs influenced an array of artists, from Bob Dylan to Tracy Chapman, from Janis Joplin to Joan Baez. Her artistic integrity inspired poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.

She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., on New Year's Eve, 1930. Work and prison songs heard in the fields during her childhood left a deep impression. But after her father died in 1937, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. It was there, three years later at age 10, that Odetta discovered her singing voice and decided to pursue music. In her teens, she absorbed blues, jazz and folk music. She later earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. While a student there, she studied classical music and music theater, but she later admitted that none of it had much influence on her art.

Her first professional break came in 1950, when Odetta began singing in the West Coast production of the musical "Finian's Rainbow." When she wasn't onstage, the young artist hung out with fellow actors in San Francisco's bohemian coffeeshops, where she sang folk songs. But a move to New York in 1953 proved to be fruitful. She eventually secured a string of nightclub dates, garnering rave reviews and a cult following. At a time when Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge set the standard for black female performers, the young Odetta stood apart. She was full-figured and dark-skinned, with blazing high cheekbones, which were set off by a neat, close-cropped natural.

Beyond her striking look, there was That Voice, which could soar to pure highs and plunge to rich lows. In 1956, she released her debut album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. She reached the peak of her fame in the early to mid-'60s during the folk revival that nurtured the likes of Bob Dylan. Her music during this time also became tied to the civil rights movement. But after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, as the movement's soundtrack became funkier and more aggressive, Odetta's fame started to fade.

She didn't stop performing. The artist remained in demand around the world, singing to fans even as her health began to fail. In April 2007, she appeared at Carnegie Hall, performing in a tribute to Bruce Springsteen. In an interview given that year, Odetta spoke of the long-forgotten voices whose songs had inspired her so many years ago: "They didn't just fall down into the cracks or the holes," she said. "And that was an incredible example for me."

Odetta became an incredible example for countless others.

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