Odetta died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 77.
“She was one of the great singers of late-20th-century America,” said folk musician and peace activist Pete Seeger, who knew her since 1950. “She sang straight, no tricks … Her power, in its directness, impressed millions of people.”
I bought her first solo album when it came out in 1956. I saw her perform in clubs in the Village in New York in the late 50’s. She charismatically expressed both the music and the emotion of her songs. Her blues and spirituals became the voice of the civil rights movement. When Rosa Parks was asked about what songs meant the most to her, she said all of Odetta’s songs.
I heard Odetta then, looking much like this, singing Water Boy in a small smoky club.
Odetta kept on singing into her 70’s, calling herself a musical historian. She spoke in 2007 about singers who first gave voice to the old blues and ballads and slavery songs she sang. “Those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life and living, who reaffirmed themselves,” she said. “They didn’t just fall down into the cracks or the holes. And that was an incredible example for me.”
And her performances in her 70’s were as wonderful as anything I saw in my youth.
“Odetta’s voice is still a force of nature — something commented upon endlessly as folks exited the auditorium — and her phrasing and sensibility for a song have grown more complex and shaded.” (Boston Globe)
She had hoped to live to sing at Obama’s inauguration, but that was not to be.
She will be greatly missed.