Published Dec 03, 2008Legendary folk singer, blues-woman and civil rights activist Odetta has passed away. On Tuesday (December 2), the singer died of heart disease in New York, her manager said in a statement, after suffering kidney failure about three weeks ago. She was 77.
Odetta, born in 1930 as Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, AL, had moved audiences for half a century, influencing musicians ranging from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Harry Belafonte and the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt. With her commanding voice and sparse guitar playing, she also became the soundtrack for much on the American civil rights movement, marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., performing for President John F. Kennedy and leading Rosa Parks to once tell the media "all the songs Odetta sings" were the ones important to her.
"What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs; to understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer," Time magazine wrote in 1960 [via the Associated Press]. "She is a keening Irishwoman in `Foggy Dew,' a chain-gang convict in `Take This Hammer,' a deserted lover in `Lass from the Low Country.'"
Odetta received several Grammy nods in her career and in 1999 was honoured with a National Medal of the Arts, with then-president Bill Clinton saying her career showed "us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world."
Among her various accomplishments, Odetta is often seen as a key figure in Dylan's history. In a 1978 Playboy interview, Dylan said, "the first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta," adding that he found "just something vital and personal" when he heard an early album of hers in a record store as a teenager. "Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar," he said.
Yet Odetta told the Washington Post in 1983: "I'm not a real folksinger. I don't mind people calling me that, but I'm a musical historian. I'm a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I've been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing."
Odetta also made a brief appearance in the indie world in her later years, with Stephin Merritt recruiting her to sing his "Waltzing Me All the Way Home" on the 6ths' second album Hyacinths and Thistles from 2000. He said later in an interview that Odetta told him she thought the song was about two gay black men in the Second World War, which was news to him.
"May Odetta's luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages," her manager Doug Yeager said Tuesday. "Her voice will never die." In a previous statement released before her death, Yeager pointed out that a desire to sing at President-Elect Barack Obama's inauguration in January was what kept her hanging on. "Odetta believes she is going to sing at Obama's Inauguration, and I believe that is the reason she is still alive," he wrote. "She has a big poster of Barack Obama taped on the wall across from her bed."
Odetta recently played a gig in Toronto just over a month ago. You can read a review of her peformance here.
A memorial service was planned for next month, Yeager said.
Odetta "Water Boy"