Sad news this morning — the queen of American folk music, former Afrobella of the Week, Odetta, has passed away at the age of 77.
“Her death on Dec. 2 in New York City at 77 from heart failure, coupled with that of South African singer Miriam Makeba three weeks ago, writes finis and fulfillment to 50 years of pursuing self-determination through song, of spreading the word through music. For a handful of black singers, their discography is an aural history, centuries deep, of abduction, enslavement, social and sexual abuse by the whites in power â€” and of the determination first to outlive the ignominy branded on the race, then to overcome it. In her commanding presence, charismatic delivery and determination to sing black truth to white power, Odetta was the female Paul Robeson.”
She really was – Odetta used her talent to tell painful stories, and she used that powerful voice to reveal the legacy of slavery in many of her earliest performances.
Listen to that. She was a force of nature.
At the Newport Music Festival, she shared her guitar playing skills with impressed audiences of folk music fans.
Her song, Hit Or Miss, is one of my favorites. As she said in the lyrics, “can’t you see? I gotta be me – hit or miss.”
Odetta was always proudly herself, and her voice will last forever. Even in her later years, Odetta continued to perform to tremendous acclaim. This video of her singing “You Don’t Know My Mind” is one of her best.
Time Magazine goes on to reveal that Odetta did not get her final wish in life, to sing at Obama’s inauguration in January.
“As she sank toward death in New York City, Odetta had an Obama poster taped on the wall across from her bed. Hospitalized with kidney failure on Monday, she kept willing herself to live because, her manager Doug Yeager wrote on a fansite just before her death, “Odetta believes she is going to sing at Obama’s inauguration and I believe that is the reason she is still alive.””
I am glad at the very least that Odetta got to see history made in November, when Barack Obama was elected president. For a woman who was so involved in the civil rights era, it must have felt like the fulfillment of a dream.
If you want to celebrate the spirit of Odetta, and enjoy the fullness of her voice, check out her remarkable Christmas album, Gonna Let it Shine. If you’re new to her music, you can’t go wrong with The Essential Odetta.
My heart goes out to Odetta’s family, and her fans around the world. Her talent and influence were immeasurable. To say that she will be missed is an understatement. Rest in Peace.