Odetta: 1930-2008

December 3, 2008  |  11:12am
Folksinger, blueswoman and civil rights activist Odetta died from heart disease yesterday in Manhattan. She was 77.

Manager Douglas Yeager spoke of her legacy in a statement. "May Odetta's luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages," he said. "Her voice will never die."

Indeed it won't. Her soulful musicianship had a vital strength that inspired further generations of luminaries. Bob Dylan cited her first record as the his initial turn-on to folk singing. And Rosa Parks, when asked after the the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott what music was important to her, said "all the songs Odetta sings."  

Born Odetta Holmes on Dec. 31, 1930, she moved from Alabama to Los Angeles to study classical music and theater before joining the coffeehouse and nightclub scene in San Francisco. Later she used her commanding voice to become the spiritual soundtrack for the civil rights movement, marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and performing for President John F. Kennedy.

She had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20. Perhaps she would have used the same tune as at the March on Washington in 1963. “O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me," it goes. "And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”

Related links:
Odetta at FolkMusicArchives.org
The New York Times: Odetta: Folksinger who surived the rock years
NPR: Odetta: Still a powerful voice for justice

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