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Who is Odetta?

Odetta was a towering figure in the folk music world, often called "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement." Her rich, resonant voice and passionate performances empowered listeners, influencing giants like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Her music transcends time, echoing the struggle for equality. Discover how Odetta's legacy continues to inspire — what will her story awaken in you?
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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Odetta, and why is she significant in music history?

Odetta Holmes, known simply as Odetta, was a legendary American singer, actress, guitarist, lyricist, and a civil and human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement." Her music, which blended folk, blues, and spirituals, inspired a generation of artists in the 1950s and 1960s, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Odetta's powerful voice and music were not just entertainment but also a rallying cry for social change, making her an iconic figure in American folk music and the struggle for equality.

What were some of Odetta's most influential songs?

Odetta's repertoire included deeply moving and influential songs such as "Take This Hammer," "We Shall Overcome," and "Freedom Trilogy." These songs became anthems of the civil rights movement and were known for their profound impact on the fight for social justice. Her music was a source of inspiration and strength for many activists during a pivotal time in American history.

How did Odetta contribute to the Civil Rights Movement through her music?

Odetta used her music as a form of protest and empowerment, giving voice to the struggles of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Her performances at key events, like the 1963 March on Washington, where she sang "O Freedom," helped to galvanize support and bring attention to the movement's goals. Her songs often spoke of freedom and justice, which resonated with those fighting for civil rights, making her an important cultural figure in the movement.

Did Odetta receive any awards or recognitions for her work?

Yes, Odetta received numerous accolades throughout her career. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1999 by President Bill Clinton, recognizing her significant contributions to the arts and America's cultural heritage. Additionally, she was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1963 for Best Folk Recording and received the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress in 2003.

How has Odetta's legacy influenced modern music and artists?

Odetta's influence on modern music is profound, with artists across various genres citing her as an inspiration. Bob Dylan once said that hearing Odetta sing was the turning point in his life, leading him to folk music. Her ability to convey powerful messages through song has inspired countless musicians to use their platforms for social commentary and change, continuing her legacy of artistry intertwined with activism.

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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."