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That Voice!



She was named a Living Legend. She was.


She is one of my very favorite artists. I am fortunate to have seen her perform a couple of times live and once, while live, in an impromptu venue. I was in Provincetown MA (one of my happy places) back in the late sixties. My friend, Barb, and I were walking out of town, on Main Street, going back to the boarding house where we had a room for the weekend. I remember so vividly walking along chatting, and stopping dead in our tracks upon hearing a voice. That voice. There is, and was, no other like it. Odetta. We were lured by the sound, down a side street, and stopped a few houses away. There she was, sitting on a front porch railing singing her heart out. We were frozen in time and just leaned against a tree, absorbing that gorgeous sound. It was the first time I had seen her although even then she was a favorite. I did see her in concert several times after that, including at the Newport Folk Festival, but that day will stay in my memory forever.


Odetta Holmes was born on December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama. When her father died in 1937, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles. She loved music but had not had many opportunities to be exposed to it in the Deep South. Here in California, that all changed. Three years later her teacher noticed her amazing vocal talents. “A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe I should study, but I myself, didn’t have anything to measure it by. When she was thirteen, she began classical voice training and eventually she earned a degree in classical music from Los Angeles City College. She supported herself doing domestic work while earning her degree. Her mother envisioned her as another Marion Anderson but it was not to be for Odetta. In 1950 she moved to San Francisco and began to participate in the emergent folk scene that was happening there.


She learned to play guitar and she quickly mastered it. She began performing what came to be known as her distinctive blend of some traditional folk, blues, Ballards and Spirituals. Her style was powerful and she had a rich vocal style, searing passion and a wide range. Her career was launched quickly.


She moved to New York City where she met Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, both of whom became great supporters. By 1956 she was releasing solo recordings. She actually influenced many key figures of the folk revival at that time, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples and Janis Joplin. Singer songwriter Bob Dylan said that when her Heard Odetta she “turned me on to folk singing.” Time Magazine included her recording of “Take This Hammer” on its list of the 100 Greatest Popular Songs, stating that “Rosa Parks was her number 1 fan and Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to her as the queen of American folk music.


She appeared at the Newport Folk Festival four times between 1959 and 1965. She continued to record as a leading folk musician, through the 60’s. It has been said that her recordings just did not do justice to her live performances. She appeared on television and in several films during this time.


Although undeniably a talented and popular performer, Odetta was also a tireless civil and human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement". In 1963 she sang at the historic March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr.


In 1999 Pres. Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given in the arts in the United States, and in 2003 she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.


In December 2006, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their "Lifetime Achievement Award". In February 2007, the International Folk Alliance awarded Odetta as "Traditional Folk Artist of the Year".

On March 24, 2007, a tribute concert to Odetta was presented at the Rachel Schlesinger Theatre by the World Folk Music Association with live performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Josh White Jr., Peter, Paul and Mary, Oscar Brand, Tom Rush, Jesse Winchester, Eric Andersen, Wavy Gravy, David Amram, Roger McGuinn, Robert Sims, Carolyn Hester, Donal Leace, Marie Knight, Side by Side, and Laura McGhee.