Farewell to Odetta

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This groundbreaking and inspiring folk singer and champion of African-American history and music passed away yesterday. Odetta was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama on December 31, 1930.

When she was just six years old, she moved to Los Angeles with her family. She received classical voice training as a child and performed with a madrigal group (secular music from the Renaissance and early Baroque period — all vocal) in junior high school, but by the time she finished high school, she became much more interested in other forms of music. She began her adult musical career in a touring production of the Broadway musical, “Finian’s Rainbow”, a Irish-ish musical with a score that included gospel and blues elements.

After the tour ended, her career blossomed when she performed as a folk singer in San Francisco in the early 1950s. She performed regularly and was close with folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. She was already well established when the folk music scene became extremely popular and commercial in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Odetta’s passionate and soulful voice, and her ability to captivate her audience deeply influenced the career paths of latter day folk performers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. She was a major influence on singers like Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen.

And while she did become involved in acting and in other areas, she remained for her entire life a passionate advocate for folk music and its importance. She said, “The folk repertoire is our inheritance. Don’t have to like it, but we need to hear it. I love getting to schools and telling kids there’s something else out there. It’s from their forebears, and its an alternative to what they hear on the radio. As long as I am performing, I will be pointing out that heritage that is ours.” Her passion for African-American folk music still serves as a hallmark of the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements. She was a champion of African-American history and culture both thought and in action — through her powerful voice and through learning, performing, and sharing these important songs with an audience around the world.

In 1999, she was recognized with the National Medal of Arts awarded by President Bill Clinton, and in 2004, she was a Kennedy Center honoree. In 2000, the Library of Congress honored her with its Living Legend Award.

Sound recordings by Odetta can be found in the Hoole Library’s Sound Recording Collections.

“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.” –Maya Angelou


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