If you’re a regular reader, you already know that I’m crazy about Afrobellas with guitar skills, who play music outside of the limiting circles of hip hop and R&B. In the vein of my Sister Rosetta Tharpe post, I’d like to pay homage to another legendary afrobella who laid the foundation and inspired legions of artists. Odetta Holmes Felious Gordon — simply known around the world as Odetta. She’s widely considered a musical mother to Janis Joplin, Tracy Chapman, and Joan Baez. Her career as a folk music pioneer is over fifty years long and still going strong.
Born in Birmingham Alabama, Odetta’s earliest beginnings in musical theater took place when her family moved to California. After a trip to San Francisco, she discovered the folk music scene and she took to it like a duck to water. She called her wood bodied guitar “Baby,” and began performing in the early 1950’s. Her first album is called The Tin Angel, after the San Francisco cafe where she and Larry Mohr recorded and performed together from 1953 to 1954. Even in the Fifties when it wasn’t the norm, she wore her hair in an elegant afro.
The tracks on the album range from treasured gospel classics (Wade in the Waters, I’ve been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands) to bluesy numbers like Another Man Don’ Gone, and Old Cotton Fields at Home.
By the late Fifties, she was performing in Greenwich Village nightspots alongside Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Her 1958 album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues is famously credited for inspiring a young Bob Dylan to trade his electric axe for a Gibson acoustic guitar. Her influence on Dylan is recognized by Martin Scorsese in the documentary No Direction Home. This clip of her singing The Waterboy reveals her enormous voice and its operatic power, and her regal bearing. She returned Dylan’s compliment by recording Odetta Sings Dylan in 1965.
While she often sang in a deep register, Odetta’s voice also could soar like an angel. Lo, this brief clip of her crooning What a Friend We Have in Jesus with Tennessee Ernie Ford. At the heyday of folk music, Odetta was celebrated as the genre’s best. Her albums, At the Gate of Horn and Odetta Sings Folk Songs, were among 1963’s most popular folk albums.
In the early Sixties, Odetta aligned herself with the Civil Rights movement and often marched and sang alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. He called her the “Queen of American folk music.” In this phenomenal NPR interview on the occasion of her 75th birthday, she sets the scene of the movement in that era. She starts out with tales of growing up as a black girl in the Jim Crow era, setting a context for her passion and conviction. “In the Fifties, there were people who were interested in improving life’s situation in this country. And many of them heard of what my work was, and I was called upon to be of assistance — to bring either attention, or to do concerts to make money for people to do the job that they had to do …I was much too shy of a person to say anything more than “how do you do” to all those people at the top there, and just to sit at their feet and listen to what they had to say. I was always like a student, and always like someone who was looking in,” she says. Despite the strength of her voice and the power of her presence, she was always humble.
The interview continues, and Odetta explains why she hadn’t released a “Christmas style album” in forty five years. In her own words, her 2005 Christmas spiritual album, Gonna Let it Shine was inspired by the burden of history and the modern plight of children with AIDS in Africa. “This record to me, represents the determination that me and my folks had and came through within this country while this country’s foot was on our throat. We lived in spite of, we found ways to get over, around, and through – to get stuff done.” Much of Odetta’s music is political, and she wrote a song on that album, “Keep On Moving it On,” with a powerful message. I found her response about that song to be so inspiring. “Any old way you can make it, baby – keep on moving it on. That many times we feel that we can’t do much of anything. But in our own way, within our own neighborhood our own family, we can stand up for what it is we believe in.”
In the Seventies and Eighties, Odetta changed musical gears and focused on jazz and blues. Check out the range of her discography here. A great starting point is The Essential Odetta, a live album that captures her strong pipes. This really honest and interesting article reveals the writer’s original balking at Odetta’s delivery, and the albums that brought him to love her music. I agree with him — Livin’ With the Blues is a phenomenal album. If you just want to drink in her voice first before you buy an album, I encourage you to listen to this Words and Music podcast that showcases friends and contemporaries Odetta and Maya Angelou, singing and performing spoken word poetry. Odetta and Maya have been friends for years, and Maya has said “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.”
Odetta’s vocal strength appears to be undiminished, as you can see in this live version of The Midnight Special. She looks as beautiful and regal as ever as she delivers this haunting and stately live version of House of the Rising Sun. At 76 years old, Odetta’s still delivering musical power. Check out this clip — filmed earlier this year — of her performing Rock Island Line.
Despite her fame in the Fifties and Sixties, having performed for presidents and celebrities and audiences all over the world, many younger people today are like “Odetta who?” Odetta’s a living legend and a national treasure. She’s a proudly natural afrobella from the beginning, who stands strong in her beliefs and beauty to this day. So if you don’t know, now you know. Congratulations, Odetta! You’re Afrobella of the week!