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Who is Odetta?

Britt Archer
Britt Archer

Folk singer Odetta was born in Alabama on 31 December 1930. When she was a child, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles, California. From the age of 13, Odetta received opera training, as her mother hoped that she would follow in the footsteps of the famous opera singer Marian Anderson. In 1944, Odetta had her first stage appearance with the musical theater production of Finian's Rainbow, which she continued with for some time. It was not until the early 1950s, however, that Odetta began to sing and write the music that many still know her for today, blues and folk.

Beginning in 1953, Odetta moved from San Francisco to New York to pursue her career in folk music. Over the next decade, she performed in several clubs that were influential at the time, including the Blue Angel in New York City, and the hungry i and the Tin Angel in San Francisco. In 1954, she released her first album with fellow artist Larry Mohr for Fantasy Records. Her music from this time period was later hailed as a mix of traditional African spirituals, folk and blues, the likes of which had never been seen before. Additionally, it was the music from this period of Odetta's career that caused many modern pop artists to claim her as an influence, including Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin.

Martin Luther King Jr. called Odetta the "queen of American folk music."
Martin Luther King Jr. called Odetta the "queen of American folk music."

The next decade was a turbulent one for America with the burgeoning civil rights movement bringing changes to American society and culture. Odetta's career thrived and she released several albums, including Odetta sings Ballads and Blues in 1956 and At the Gate of Horn in 1957. In 1961, prominent African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. praised Odetta, calling her the “queen of American folk music,” securing her a place in the celebration of black history to this day. She continued and branched out, releasing not only albums, but also starring in feature films and continuing with pride her involvement in the civil rights movement.

It would seem to many of her fans that, from 1977 to 1997, Odetta disappeared from the scene, releasing only two records in that 20 year span. In 1998, after her hiatus from the world of entertainment, Odetta began to tour and release new albums at the same rate she had earlier in her career. During this time, she was honored with many awards, including the National Medal of the Arts given by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999, and the Library of Congress's Living Legend Award in 2006.

In 2008, Odetta began what was to be her final tour. Throughout the year she had several prestigious gigs, including being the keynote speaker for San Diego's Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. Her last official performance was on 25 October 2008 at Hugh's Room in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It was in November 2008 that Odetta began receiving treatment for heart disease at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital. On 2 December 2008, Odetta Holmes died, bringing an end to her prolific and influential musical career.

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    • Martin Luther King Jr. called Odetta the "queen of American folk music."
      By: Bill Perry
      Martin Luther King Jr. called Odetta the "queen of American folk music."