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It's a power she's aware of. Odetta has, for years, been known for her somewhat eccentric stage persona, perhaps a carryover from an adolescence spent in theater or her work as an actress in films including The Last Time I Saw Paris, Cinerama Holiday and the intriguingly titled The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. She opens every concert with the African spiritual "Kumbaya" and often stops mid-song to lecture on history or American culture. (One review of a 1997 show in Massachusetts reports that Odetta offered insight into the origin of the term "cowboy": during slavery, black male slaves took care of cattle and were called cowboys; white cattle caretakers were called "ranchers" or "drivers." Hollywood liked the sound of "cowboy" and appropriated it for John Wayne and others ad infinitum. That's her story, anyway.)
The stage isn't the only place Odetta's been sharing her opinions in recent years. Her support of social causes continues, as she's raised money for charities ranging from Sing Out for Sight to the Folk Music Archives at the Library of Congress, and she remains an outspoken supporter of civil-rights efforts. In September 1995, Odetta was invited to attend the International Women's Conference in China (as an "elder"). And when teaching a course on consciousness at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, a few years ago, she used the classroom as a platform for some of her views on modern life, computers and technology in particular.
"The computer is a mechanical thing," she says. "It's going to get to the point where we put into the computer 'two plus two,' and it comes out five, and we won't have any way to prove it otherwise. In my class, I wanted the young ones to experience the give and take of talking to one another, of talking with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, the mamas and the papas. In music we deal in vibrations, and there's this healing area people can get to through consciousness and awareness. It can be a wonderful experience."
It's understandable that Odetta would place her own art on a plane opposing the world of computers, as the organic quality that makes her a master is not something quantifiable or attainable through such an impersonal medium. Like most great performers, Odetta's power lies just outside the realm of what is nameable, what is knowable in a concrete way. Odetta's gift is in the lilt, the turn of phrase, the almost subliminal urgency of her song.