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."
Today, Odetta credits her increased awareness of the need for social action in the Sixties to singer and friend Paul Robeson, with whom Odetta collaborated and recorded during that decade. "Paul was the one who helped me know that it was possible -- no -- not only possible, but absolutely necessary to be responsible to my brothers and sisters on the earth. He politicized me."
But Odetta's tone changes from reminiscence to dead seriousness when she reflects on the personal experiences with racism which led her to willingly lend her voice to the movement.
"You know I'm a black woman?" she says. "You know how black people were treated in this country? Of course I encountered racism, and no history book had to tell me there were certain places in this country you just didn't go."
While the movement was gaining steam, if not wide support, within the mainstream, Odetta was doing both. The same year as the March, she released Folk Songs, which sold well and led to a recording relationship with Vanguard Records and bassist Bill Lee (Spike's father). She and Lee became staples of national folk festivals like the Newport Folk Festival and performed solo concerts at Carnegie Hall. During this period, Odetta remained largely aligned with folk music, though her forays into traditional gospel revealed both a spiritual and a playful side. This past January, Vanguard released Odetta: Best of the Vanguard Years, which includes many gospel and blues-tinged songs from a 1963 Carnegie Hall concert. The album is an excellent sample of the diversity of Odetta's work in the Sixties -- which led some purists to call her erratic. Woody Guthrie's "Rambling Round Your City" comfortably follows Huddie Ledbetter's "Cotton Fields"; a faithful rendition of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" is smack dab in the middle of a record that winds up with a goose-bump-inducing version of "House of the Rising Sun," in which her sailing vocals are at once commanding, spiritual and sensual, a combination only Miss Odetta herself could pull off.
Best of the Vanguard Years is one of several new Odetta releases; the recent wealth of offerings allows the singer to boast a catalogue of twenty-six solo albums. In February, Silverwolf released To Ella, a tribute to the fabulous Fitzgerald inspired by the Lady's passing. Happily, the word "tribute" takes on a fresh connotation here, as Odetta reworks many of her own classics as love letters to Fitzgerald rather than attempting her own versions of songs that singer popularized. Later this month, MC Records will release Blues Everywhere I Go, a compilation of songs influenced or written by blues greats of the Twenties through the Forties, such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Memphis Minni and Big Bill Broonzy. Odetta's backing band on the release includes Dr. John as well as the underrated blues guitarist Jimmy Vivano and other members of the Late Night With Conan O'Brien band.
Odetta's past and present ventures into blues territory allow her to explore a side of her musical ability untapped by her folk efforts. "I don't have to choose between [folk and blues] for sure," she says. "I enjoy both. You might like spinach and you might like apple pie, and you might have to give one up for the other sometimes.
"I can't play the blues on the guitar. So when we do the blues shows it's very inspiring -- we explore other parts of my possibilities."
As a performer who's always exercised tremendous control over her own career, Odetta is proud to serve as a musical historian on aspects of black history in America. She has less enthusiasm for the directions some currently popular black musicians are taking, though. She's a hip lady, no question, but Odetta just can't get into most rap or hip-hop. She politely defers from naming names but suggests that many artists reduce legitimate social issues to a cartoonish level.
"I'm anxious to find the songs that explore what the lives of black people have been and not just songs that are stereotyping it," she says. "I am so sick of that. I'm on a quest within the blues to address that."
Ripping it up with a blues band, both on the road and in the studio, isn't exactly a routine activity for a woman going on seventy. But Blues Everywhere I Go finds Odetta's voice as elastic, as commanding, as sassy as any contemporary artist endeavoring to croon authentically about trouble, bein' poor and low down, bein' lonely. The album moves from expressive whimsicality on the title track ("There's blues in my mailbox/blues in my breadbox/blues everywhere I go") to the heart-stinging, spare and poignantly simple beauty of "Please Send Me Someone to Love" to matter-of-fact laments like "Can't Afford to Lose My Man" and "Unemployment Blues." On Blues, she's attained a vocal wisdom that allows her to be as comfortable adding color in a high falsetto as she is growling like an animal on "Dink's Blues"; it's as if she is presenting a blues opera in which she plays all of the parts. Odetta's voice is the same one children imagine when they think of benign witches or voodoo princesses; hers is the voice of the strange lady who lives down the block but who nonetheless possesses a divine, indisputable knowledge of the way things are. And when she sings "Just 'cause I'm in misery, I don't ask for no sympathy," on "Please Send Me Someone to Love," it's hard not to feel like a whiny chump for bemoaning your own little life.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.