A few years ago I was having lunch with Rosa Parks at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., and the name Odetta came up. Largely confined to a wheelchair, the octogenarian Parks was indulging me in a conversation about the music of the civil rights movement. I was writing her biography and wanted to know the songs that matter most to her. At first, Parks spoke of the comfort she had found as a young girl memorizing such Christian hymns as "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus" and "Oh, Freedom, Let It Ring." Then she went on to elaborate on her devotion to Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte. Suddenly, as if sensing she was talking too much, Parks ended her answer by saying, "Essentially, all of the songs Odetta sings."
That Parks so identified with the music of Odetta was understandable. Both women were born and raised in Alabama when Jim Crow reigned supreme. They had learned Christian spirituals, hymns and even blues songs in church. Although Odetta -- who was born Dec. 31, 1930, in Birmingham -- moved to Los Angeles when she was six, the ethereal poetry in her powerful voice was that of the Deep South's back roads. Her first major gig may have been singing in the chorus of the 1947 Broadway production of Finian's Rainbow, but her roots were pure Bessie Smith. Like Bob Dylan, who after hearing her 1956 album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues swapped his electric guitar for a Gibson acoustic guitar, Odetta was a veritable sponge of the old-timey American Songbook. "In school, you learn about American history through battles," Odetta told The New York Times in 1981. "But I learned about the United States through this music, through the songs that I sing."
When writing about the civil rights movement, the name Odetta pops up everywhere. Inspired by Marian Anderson, who showed her the "dignity of women," Odetta sang at the famous 1963 March On Washington and marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1964; Martin Luther King Jr. dubbed her the "Queen of American Folk Music." In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Endowment for the Arts' Medal of the Arts. Harry Belafonte is merely pointing out the obvious when he states that "Odetta is a vast influence on our cultural life."
Unfortunately, most young people today don't know the sound of Odetta's voice. During the 1960s, when she released 16 albums, every coffeehouse from Greenwich Village to Venice Beach played Odetta cassettes/albums until closing time. Whether it was Odetta at Town Hall or Odetta Sings Dylan or Odetta in Japan, no self-respecting New Left bohemian/activist would be without a little Odetta to inspire them to fight injustice. Vanguard and RCA couldn't wait to have a new release from her because she was a guaranteed moneymaker.
But the emergence of the singer/songwriter explosion of the 1970s left Odetta in the lurch. She was, for the most part, an interpreter of what other people wrote. Suddenly Odetta wasn't relevant, she was a relic. The readers of Rolling Stone wanted to hear The Who and Yes originals, not Odetta's version of "Motherless Child" or "No More Cane on the Brazos." They wanted their cultural heroes to be wild and reckless, not classically trained like Odetta, in perfect control of her octaves.
But time has come full-circle back to Odetta. In our current cultural moment, female singers are in vogue. Ask Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Tracy Chapman, Gillian Welch or Jewel to name the singers that most inspired them and Odetta -- along with Joan Baez -- ranks supreme. Poet Maya Angelou explains Odetta's new survivor status best by commenting that her guitar strumming "enlightens our load."
For the past 30 years, Odetta has lived in the same New York apartment, traveling the world with her acoustic guitar, singing protest songs of hope. She is, essentially, a cultural ambassador sharing a slice of American history with global audiences who have never before heard Leadbelly's "Midnight Special" or Pete Seeger's "If I had a Hammer." Occasionally somebody will recognize her in airports from her acting appearances in films like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. But it's her powerful voice -- which runs from coloratura to baritone -- that is her calling card. She is an old-school performer who really believes that spirituals like "Go Tell it on the Mountain" or "Oh, Jerusalem," can save the soul. "Music is outside the path we walk everyday," she has maintained. "Ever since primitive man we have been lifted by it, and we want to be lifted by it. Even though we're heading for Mars and a push-button world, we still have our basic emotions to deal with and that's where songs are coming from."