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Odetta (1961)
Odetta (1961)
Background information
Birth nameOdetta Holmes
Also known asOdetta Gordon
Born(1930-12-31)December 31, 1930
Birmingham, Alabama, United States
DiedDecember 2, 2008(2008-12-02) (aged 77)
New York City
GenresFolk, blues, spirituals
Years active1944–2008
LabelsFantasy, Tradition, Vanguard, RCA Victor, MC, Silverwolf, Original Blues Classics
Associated actsLead Belly, Janis Joplin, The Staple Singers, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt Harry Belafonte

Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008), known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, and a civil and human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement".[1] 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 influenced many of the key figures of the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, and Janis Joplin. Time included her song "Take This Hammer" on its list of the All-Time 100 Songs, stating that "Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music."[2]


Early life and career[]

Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles, attended Belmont High School, and studied music at Los Angeles City College while employed as a domestic worker. She had operatic training from the age of 13. Her mother hoped she would follow Marian Anderson, but Odetta doubted a large black girl would ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera.[3] Her first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lanchester. She later joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow in 1949.

While on tour with Finian's Rainbow, Odetta "fell in with an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco", and after 1950 concentrated on folksinging.[4]

She made her name by playing around the United States at the Blue Angel nightclub (New York City), the hungry i (San Francisco), and Tin Angel (San Francisco), where she and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry in 1954, for Fantasy Records.

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.

In 1959 she appeared on Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special. Odetta sang Water Boy and a duet with Belafonte, There's a Hole in My Bucket.[5]

In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her "The Queen of American folk music".[6] Also in 1961 the duo Harry Belafonte and Odetta made #32 in the UK Singles Chart with the song There's a Hole in the Bucket.[7] Many Americans remember her performance at the 1963 civil rights movement's March on Washington where she sang "O Freedom."[8] She considered her involvement in the Civil Rights movement as being "one of the privates in a very big army."[9]

File:Odetta (Burg Waldeck-Festival 1968, Germany).jpg

Odetta (Burg Waldeck-Festival 1968, Germany)

Broadening her musical scope, Odetta used band arrangements on several albums rather than playing alone, and released music of a more "jazz" style on albums like Odetta and the Blues (1962) and Odetta (1967). She gave a remarkable performance in 1968 at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert.

Odetta also acted in several films during this period, including Cinerama Holiday (1955), the film of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). In 1961 she appeared in an episode of TV's Have Gun, Will Travel, playing the wife of a man sentenced to hang ("The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs").

Her marriages to Dan Gordon and Gary Shead ended in divorce. Singer-guitarist Louisiana Red was a former companion.[3]

Later career[]

In May 1975 she appeared on public television's Say Brother program, performing "Give Me Your Hand" in the studio. She spoke about her spirituality, the music tradition from which she drew, and her involvement in civil rights struggles.[10]

In 1976, Odetta performed in the U.S. Bicentennial opera Be Glad Then, America by John La Montaine, as the Muse for America; with Donald Gramm, Richard Lewis and the Penn State University Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The production was directed by Sarah Caldwell who was the director of the Opera Company of Boston at the time.

Odetta released two albums in the 20-year period from 1977 to 1997: Movin' It On, in 1987 and a new version of Christmas Spirituals, produced by Rachel Faro, in 1988.

Beginning in 1998, she began recording and touring. The new CD To Ella (recorded live and dedicated to her friend Ella Fitzgerald upon hearing of her death before walking on stage)[citation needed], was released in 1998 on Silverwolf Records, followed by three releases on M.C. Records in partnership with pianist/arranger/producer Seth Farber and record producer Mark Carpentieri. These included Blues Everywhere I Go, a 2000 Grammy-nominated blues/jazz band tribute album to the great lady blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s; Looking for a Home, a 2002 W.C. Handy Award-nominated band tribute to Lead Belly; and the 2007 Grammy-nominated Gonna Let It Shine, a live album of gospel and spiritual songs supported by Seth Farber and The Holmes Brothers. These recordings and active touring led to guest appearance on fourteen new albums by other artists between 1999 and 2006 and the re-release of 45 old Odetta albums and compilation appearances.

On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honored at the Kennedy Center with the "Visionary Award" along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress honored her with its "Living Legend Award".

In mid-September 2001, Odetta performed with the Boys' Choir of Harlem on the Late Show with David Letterman, appearing on the first show after Letterman resumed broadcasting, having been off the air for several nights following the events of September 11; they performed "This Little Light of Mine".

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 "Waterboy" on TV in 1959, and we also hear Odetta's songs "Mule Skinner Blues" and "No More Auction Block for Me".

In 2006, Odetta opened shows for jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and in 2006 she toured the US, Canada, and Europe accompanied by her pianist, which included being presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference, and also in a concert in Riga's historic 1,000-year-old Maza Guild Hall. In December 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".

On March 24, 2007, a tribute concert to Odetta was presented at the Rachel Schlesinger Theatre by the World Folk Music Association with live performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Josh White, Jr., (Josh White) Peter, Paul and Mary, Oscar Brand, Tom Rush, Jesse Winchester, Eric Andersen, Wavy Gravy, David Amram, Roger McGuinn, Robert Sims, Carolyn Hester, Donal Leace, Marie Knight, Side by Side, and Laura McGhee (from Scotland).[11]

In 2007, Odetta's album Gonna Let It Shine was nominated for a Grammy, and she completed a major Fall Concert Tour in the "Songs of Spirit" show, which included artists from all over the world. She toured around North America in late 2006 and early 2007 to support this CD.[12]

Final tour[]

On January 21, 2008, Odetta was the keynote speaker at San Diego's Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, followed by concert performances in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Mill Valley, in addition to being the sole guest for the evening on PBS-TV's The Tavis Smiley Show.

Odetta was honored on May 8, 2008 at a historic tribute night,[13] hosted by Wavy Gravy, held at Banjo Jim's in the East Village.

In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched a North American tour, where she sang from a wheelchair.[14][15] Her set in later years included "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)",[16] Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues",[16][17][18] "(Something Inside) So Strong", "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "House of the Rising Sun".[15]

She made an appearance on June 30, 2008, at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. Her last big concert, before thousands of people, was in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.[19] She last performed at Hugh's Room in Toronto on October 25.[19]


In November 2008, Odetta's health began to decline and she began receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009,[19][20] but on December 2, 2008, she died from heart disease in New York City.[19][21][22]

At her memorial service in February 2009 at Riverside Church in New York City, participants included Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Holder, Steve Earle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter Yarrow, Maria Muldaur,[23] Tom Chapin, Josh White, Jr. (son of Josh White), Emory Joseph, Rattlesnake Annie, the Brooklyn Technical High School Chamber Chorus, and videotaped tributes from Tavis Smiley and Joan Baez.[24]


Odetta influenced Harry Belafonte, who "cited her as a key influence" on his musical career;[19] Bob Dylan, who said, "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson. ... [That album was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record";[25] Joan Baez, who said "Odetta was a goddess. Her passion moved me. I learned everything she sang";[26] Janis Joplin, who "spent much of her adolescence listening to Odetta, who was also the first person Janis imitated when she started singing";[27] poet Maya Angelou who once said "If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta's would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time";[28] John Waters, whose original screenplay for Hairspray mentions her as an influence on beatniks;[29] and Carly Simon, who cited Odetta as a major influence, and talked about "going weak in the knees" when she had the opportunity to meet her in Greenwich Village.[30]


Further information: Odetta discography


Film/programme title Info Year
Cinerama Holiday Film 1955
Lamp Unto My Feet TV 1956
Tonight with Belafonte TV/Musical Variety (Emmy Award) 1959
Toast of the Town TV[31] 1960
Sanctuary Drama[32] 1961
Have Gun – Will Travel
episode 159/226: "The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs"
TV drama[33] 1961
Les Crane Show TV/Talk/Variety 1965
Tennessee Ernie Ford Show TV[34] Talk/Variety 1965
Festival documentary film[35] 1967
Live from the Bitter End TV – Concert 1967
Clown Town
starring Odetta & Bobby Vinton
NBC Music Special 1968
The Dick Cavett Show TV/Talk/Variety 1969
The Johnny Cash Show TV/Musical Variety 1969
The Virginia Graham Show TV[36] 1971
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman TV film 1974
Soundstage: Just Folks
with Odetta, Tom Paxton, Josh White, Jr. and Bob Gibson
TV – Concert Special 1980
Ramblin': with Odetta TV – Concert Special 1981
Chords of Fame doc.[37] 1984
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 1989
Boston Pops
with Odetta, Shirley Verrett and Boys Choir of Harlem
TV – Concert 1991
Tommy Makem & Friends TV – Concert 1992
The Fire Next Time TV film[38] 1993
Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers doc.[39] 1993
Odetta: Woman In (E)motion German TV – Concert Special 1995
Peter, Paul and Mary: Lifelines TV[40] 1996
National Medal of Arts and Humanities Presentations C-SPAN 1999
The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack Drama[41] 2000
21st Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards Awards ceremony[42] 2000
Songs for a Better World TV – Concert Special 2000
Later... with Jools Holland
with Odetta, and Bill Wyman & His Rhythm Kings
BBC-TV 2001
Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher TV Talk Show 2001
Late Show with David Letterman TV/Talk/Variety Show 2001
Pure Oxygen TV – Talk Show 2002
Newport Folk Festival TV – Concert Special 2002
Janis Joplin: Pieces of My Heart BBC-TV Biography Special 2002
Get Up, Stand Up:
The Story of Pop and Protest
doc.[43] 2003
Tennessee Ernie Ford Show TV Musical Variety (Re-Broadcast) 2003
Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey PBS-TV Biography 2003
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin PBS-TV Biography 2003
Visionary Awards Presentation PBS-TV Award Presentation 2004
Lightning in a Bottle – Salute to the Blues doc. 2004
No Direction Home doc. 2005
Talking Bob Dylan Blues BBC-TV Concert Special 2005
Odetta: Blues Diva PBS-TV Concert Special 2005
Odetta: Viss Notiek Latvian TV Weekly Journal 2006
A Tribute to the Teachers of America PBS-TV Special: Concert at The Town Hall, New York City
Odetta sings a children's song medley of "Rock Island Line/Here We Go Looptie-Lou/Bring Me Little Water Sylvie"
The Tavis Smiley Show PBS-TV Discussion and performance of the song "Keep on Movin' It On" January 25, 2008
Mountain Stage HD: John Hammond, Odetta, and Jorma Kaukonen PBS-TV Concert Special 2008
Odetta Remembers BBC Four interview and concert footage, 30 mins[44] February 6, 2009
The Yellow Bittern A Biopic of Liam Clancy of The Clancy Brothers 2009

See also[]

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  • James Chaney


  1. Kreps, Daniel (March 12, 2008). "'Folk Singer And Civil Rights Activist Odetta Dead at 77'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 24, 2013.
  2. Winter, Jessica (October 24, 2011). "'Tightrope' | 100 Greatest Popular Songs: TIME List of Best Music | Entertainment |". Retrieved December 30, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Weil, Martin; Adam Bernstein (December 4, 2008). "Odetta: Matriarch for Generation of Folk Singers". The Washington Post. p. B6. Retrieved December 4, 2008.
  4. Odetta biography, 1956: back cover of Sings Ballads and Blues.
  5. [1] Archived January 6, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  6. Folk Alley radio – about Odetta
  7. – Harry Belafonte and Odetta
  8. World mourns passing of Odetta
  9. I'm Gonna Let It Shine
  10. "Odetta Gordon performs 'Give Me Your Hand'". WGBH OpenVault. Retrieved December 3, 2008.
  12. Concerted Efforts website Odetta's Itinerary for 2006–2007 Tour web page. Accessed July 21, 2008. Archived June 13, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  14. Lark Street BID official website Monday Nights in the Park Concert Series web page. Accessed July 21, 2008. Archived June 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  15. 15.0 15.1 Malachowsky, David, "A frail Odetta is strong, sure, confident, Albany Times-Union, found at "Review on Times Union Website". Accessed July 23, 2008.
  16. 16.0 16.1 MC Records website. Accessed July 23, 2008.
  17. Odetta- Bourgeois Blues (2006) on YouTube. Accessed July 23, 2008.
  18. Odetta Live in concert 2005, "Bourgeois Blues" on YouTube. Accessed July 23, 2008.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 Weiner, Tim (December 3, 2008). "Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77". The New York Times (December 3). Retrieved December 3, 2008.
  20. Guardian (UK) article 01 December 2008
  21. International Herald Tribune, December 3, 2008.
  22. "US folk icon Odetta dies aged 77". BBC News (December 3). December 4, 2008. Retrieved December 3, 2008.
  23. filmed footage
  24. Ryzik, Melena (February 26, 2009). "Remembering Odetta, Who Sang of Freedom". New York Times.
  25. Playboy interview with Bob Dylan, March 1978
  26. Loder, Kurt (1983). "Joan Baez: The Rolling Stone Interview" Rolling Stone 4/14/83 (issue # 393)
  27. – page about Odetta's influence on Janis Joplin
  28. Maya Angelou, Concerted Efforts.
  29. New York Daily News: Odetta left message of hope. December 3, 2008. Accessed February 15, 2015.
  30. Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—And the Journey of a Generation, n.d.
  31. "The Ed Sullivan Show: Season 14, Episode 12, Episode #14.12 (25 Dec. 1960)", IMDb.
  32. "Sanctuary (1961)", IMDb.
  33. "Have Gun – Will Travel: Season 5, Episode 8 The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs (4 Nov. 1961)", IMDb.
  34. "What a Friend We Have In Jesus (duet)"
  35. "Festival (1967)", IMDb.
  36. "The Virginia Graham Show, Episode dated 13 April 1971 (13 Apr. 1971)", IMDb.
  37. "Chords of Fame (1984)", IMDb.
  38. "The Fire Next Time (1993)", IMDb.
  39. "Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers (1993)", IMDb.
  40. "Peter, Paul and Mary: Lifelines (2 Mar. 1996)", IMDb.
  41. "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000)", IMDb.
  42. "21st Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards (2000)", IMDb.
  43. "Get Up, Stand Up (2003– )", IMDb.
  44. BBC Four Programmes: Odetta Remembers February 23, 2009

External links[]