Odetta, the singer, actress and civil rights activist famous for her outspoken politics and inimitable deep-mahogany voice, died yesterday in New York City at age 77. Born in Alabama and raised in Los Angeles, she became a sort of legend’s legend, often cited by names like Harry Belafonte, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez (who called her “a goddess”) and Bob Dylan (he famously claimed she turned him on to folk singing; she returned the favor by recording 1965’s Odetta Sings Dylan). Even Martin Luther King Jr. dubbed her “The queen of American folk music.”
Finding her medium in jazz, folk, spirituals and blues, Odetta released nearly 30 albums, many of them live recordings, over her 50-plus-year career, while also acting in films (1961’s Sanctuary, 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) and touring extensively, as well as appearing frequently at rallies, protests and other events to further the cause of civil rights.
This year, she embarked on an ambitious national tour, during which she revived classics including “This Little Light of Mine (I’m Gonna Let It Shine)” and Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues,” and made her final appearances in Toronto in late October before finally losing her battle with heart disease Dec. 2. She is survived by two children, a son and a daughter.
On a personal note, I never got a chance to see Odetta perform live, but grew up with a dad who admired and respected her, so I called him after the news came out and asked how he remembered her. Here’s what he had to say: “The first time I saw her play was at a civil rights protest in New York in the late ’60s, maybe ’66 or ’67… The thing I remember about her more than anything is that she immediately called for a kind of profound respect, because she seemed so thoughtful and so serious. And she was really imposing in person, she added this kind of gravitas and validity to whatever event she was at. Plus it was a female voice, and it really balanced the other voices coming out for civil rights. For me, she stood out as one of the strongest females [in the movement]. She was black and female and talented and she just demanded respect. She had that kind of honor.”
After the jump, check out some embedded Clips of Odetta’s performances, singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” with Tennessee Ernie Ford, doing “Midnight Special” solo, and performing “House of the Rising Sun” in 2005; plus, click here for a 2005 NPR interview that includes her performance of “Amazing Grace.”