and civil rights icon passes away at 77.
By Fred Mills
We’ve lost another lioness of music. Yesterday, Dec. 2,
legendary folksinger and civil rights-era icon Odetta died at New York’s Lenox Hill hospital from heart
disease. She was 77. Her booming, soaring voice, informed by blues and gospel
but rendered in an utterly signature style, never failed to touch the emotional
core of every person who had the privilege to hear her. See a video of her from 2005, below.
Born in Alabama on Dec. 31,
1930, Odetta was trained in classical music and theater but found her
professional calling in the ‘50s on the thriving boho-beatnik coffeehouse scene
of San Francisco,
eventually releasing her first album, Odetta
Sings Ballads and Blues, in 1956. Embraced by the burgeoning folk movement
– among her many fans was Bob Dylan, who has claimed that Odetta was directly
responsible for turning him on to folksinging
– she soon became a mainstay of the civil rights movement; in the early
‘60s she marched with Martin Luther King and performed for President Kennedy.
(Two other key albums from this period: 1962’s live album Odetta at Town Hall, and 1963’s Odetta
Sings Folk Songs.)
She released numerous records throughout the ‘60s, her
output slowing down in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but continued to tour
extensively. More recently she released three awards-nominated albums on the
venerable blues label MC Records: 1999’s Blues
Everywhere I Go (Grammy nominated), 2001’s Lookin’ For a Home: A Tribute to Leadbelly (W.C. Handy Award
nominated) and 2005’s Gonna Let It Shine:
A Concert for the Holidays (Grammy nominated). In 1999, President Bill
Clinton awarded her the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts.
A celebrated tribute concert for Odetta took place in 2007 in D.C. featuring
such storied performers as Peter, Paul & Mary, Janis Ian, Harry Belafonte
Roger McGuinn, Pete Seeger and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
And she was performing herself up until the very end,
gracing the concert stage – in a wheelchair – throughout much of 2008. She
reportedly was planning to appear at Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
In an email sent out this morning by MC Records’ Mark
Carpentieri, the label owner reflected on working with the woman he numbers
among “of the greatest voices and artists America has ever produced.”
“One of the greatest joys of my life was to have recorded
and produced Odetta’s last three recordings,” writes Carpentieri. “My wife and
I frequently enjoyed Odetta’s company, compassion and her wonderful humor.
“How magnificent that she lived long enough to see Senator
Obama elected President.”
How magnificent, indeed.
Odetta, live 2005, doing “House of the Rising Sun”: