Odetta Holmes


Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008), known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, and a civil and human rights activist, often referred to[who?] as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement". Her musical repertoire consisted largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she was influential to many of the key figures of the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, and Janis Joplin. Time included her song "Take This Hammer" on its list of the All-Time 100 Songs, stating that "Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music."

Early Life and Career

Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles, California, attended Belmont High School, and studied music at Los Angeles City College while employed as a domestic worker. She had operatic training from the age of 13. Her mother hoped she would follow Marian Anderson, but Odetta doubted a large black girl would ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lanchester; she later joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow in 1949.
While on tour with Finian's Rainbow, Odetta "fell in with an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco", and after 1950 concentrated on folksinging.
She made her name by playing around the United States: at the Blue Angel nightclub (New York City), the hungry i (San Francisco), and Tin Angel (San Francisco), where she and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry in 1954, for Fantasy Records.
A solo career followed, with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957). Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's best-selling folk albums.
In 1959 she appeared on Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special. Odetta sang Water Boy and a duet with Belafonte, There's a Hole in My Bucket.
In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her "The Queen of American folk music". Also in 1961 the duo Harry Belafonte and Odetta made #32 in the UK Singles Chart with the song There's a Hole in My Bucket. Many Americans remember her performance at the 1963 civil rights movement's March on Washington where she sang "O Freedom." She considered her involvement in the Civil Rights movement as being "one of the privates in a very big army."
Broadening her musical scope, Odetta used band arrangements on several albums rather than playing alone, and released music of a more "jazz" style music on albums like Odetta and the Blues (1962) and Odetta (1967). She gave a remarkable performance in 1968 at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert.
Odetta also acted in several films during this period, including Cinerama Holiday (1955), the film of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
Her marriages to Dan Gordon and Gary Shead ended in divorce. Singer-guitarist Louisiana Red was a former companion.

Final Tour

On January 21, 2008, Odetta was the keynote speaker at San Diego's Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, followed by concert performances in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Mill Valley, in addition to being the sole guest for the evening on PBS-TV's The Tavis Smiley Show.
Odetta was honored on May 8, 2008 at a historic tribute night, hosted by Wavy Gravy, held at Banjo Jim's in the East Village.
In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched a North American tour, where she sang from a wheelchair. Her set in recent years included "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)", Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues", (Something Inside) So Strong", "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "House of the Rising Sun".
She made an appearance on June 30, 2008 at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. Her last big concert, before thousands of people, was in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. She last performed at Hugh's Room in Toronto on October 25.
In November 2008, Odetta's health began to decline and she began receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009
On December 2, 2008, Odetta died from heart disease in New York City.
At her memorial service in February 2009 at Riverside Church in New York City, participants included Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Holder, Steve Earle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter Yarrow, Tom Chapin, Josh White, Jr. (son of Josh White), Emory Joseph, Rattlesnake Annie, the Brooklyn Technical High School Chamber Chorus, and videotaped tributes from Tavis Smiley and Joan Baez.

Odetta performing in 2006.
Background information
Birth nameOdetta Holmes
Also known asOdetta Felious (her stepfather's surname), Odetta Gordon
BornDecember 31, 1930
Birmingham, AlabamaUnited States
DiedDecember 2, 2008 (aged 77)
New York City, New York,United States
GenresFolkbluesspiritualscountry bluesjazz blues
InstrumentsVocalsacoustic guitar,keyboard
Years active1944–2008
LabelsFantasy Records
Tradition Recordings
Vanguard Records
RCA Victor
M.C. Records[1]
Original Blues Classics
Associated actsLeadbellyJanis JoplinThe Staple SingersBessie Smith,Bob DylanJoan BaezBonnie Raitt,[3] Harry Belafonte
WebsiteM.C. Records