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Folk singers can get away with taking their craft into unconventional places: On downtown sidewalks, in subway stations and in restaurants at lunchtime, they open their guitar cases and unleash their voices, good or bad. So many people associate folk music with the mellow, sensitive fare of street buskers or the white-bread stylings of people like James Taylor that they overlook its more humble beginnings as an oral tradition, a tool of expression, a form of protest. It's also easy to forget that the sight of, say, a young woman playing acoustic guitar in a coffee shop, singing songs born in the backwoods, wasn't always a familiar sight -- especially if that young woman happened to be black. At least it wasn't a familiar sight in 1949, when Odetta Felious (née Holmes) began singing in San Francisco joints at the age of nineteen.
Fifty years later, Odetta is hardly recognizable as that shy young woman getting acquainted with her own talent and her own social bravery. At 69, she's a folk icon with diva tendencies who's as comfortable busting out a blues wail or a jazz scat as she is playing her guitar and singing songs with a populist bent. Though she's never been as widely recognizable as Ella or Aretha, she's been cited as an influence by everyone from Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin to Joan Armatrading and Jewel. Her skills as a storyteller and her ability to evoke the humble pains and pleasures of the everyday have served her well, whether she's singing gospel spirituals, straightforward folk narratives or adaptations of prison and workaday songs. Whatever the style, Odetta finds a way to imbue it with her large personality.
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and moved to Los Angeles with her mother at the age of six following her father's death. As a teenager, she discovered her voice in musical theater, then studied classical and opera at Los Angeles City College. As a member of a touring production of Finian's Rainbow, she was first exposed to that city's folk scene, and she began to entertain thoughts of using the medium to illuminate and modernize elements of African American musical traditions.
"In California I enjoyed and studied classical and opera, and I still enjoy classical and technique," Odetta says, speaking with the precision of a charm-school headmistress. "In folk music, though, they were talking about our real lives. They were talking about the lives that we live here and go through, and sometimes we come out of the end of the tunnel despite the wretched policies of the 'haves.'
"Folk music is our people's history. In school we learned about all of those people who cheated us out of the money that we worked for -- those were the heroes. Folk music is going into our work, our fears. There's more of a spectrum."
Odetta began to explore that spectrum as a member of the San Francisco folk community in the early Fifties. She developed a friendship with Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who taught her his "hillbilly" picking style. Swapping one coast for the other, Odetta moved to New York in 1953 at age 24; she's intermittently called the city home ever since and has remained there steadily over the last thirty years. In New York, Odetta caught favor with Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger, who introduced her to the stage and the audiences of the city's then-famous Blue Angel club, a venue Belafonte and Seeger had turned into a launching pad for emerging talent in blues and folk music. Odetta became the club's darling, and three years after she began performing there, she was signed to release two albums on the Tradition label: Odetta: Ballads and Blues in 1956, and Odetta (Live) at the Gate of Horn in 1957. Today those albums are considered veritable operation manuals, required listening for those who aspire to master the folk/blues craft. In 1997 and 1998, Rykodisc issued remastered versions of the classic albums, which find Odetta comfortably settling into her status as a powerful performer with a lightning voice.
During this period, something else happened to the young singer -- as she caught the ears of a growing music audience, she also caught the attention of leaders in the burgeoning civil-rights movement. She was invited to share stages and podiums with black leaders like Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr., and politicians such as John F. Kennedy.
To young students of modern history, movements like the one led by King seem incomprehensible. It's nearly impossible to understand how much strength it would take to align oneself with something so new and so widely unpopular, as demanding equal treatment in a country where segregation was as accepted and as old as the Constitution. Odetta was one of the young, unwavering, unofficial voices that, through song, humanized grand events like the 1963 March on Washington in the same way Rosa Parks had when she refused to budge from that Alabama bus seat. Talking about it nearly forty years later, Odetta refers to the period with a combination of reverence and humor, her speech as intense as her singing voice. "I have always wanted to be useful to those who are on the firing line, who are actually out there doing the work, and that was so with the movement when it was forming. I was performing songs that were coming out of the black history, and they would call on me to call attention to it. They called upon me, even the politicians. I guess they figured if they had three speeches in a row, you've got to put a song in there somewhere."