THE LOSS OF ODETTA
An Obituary by John Pietaro
Odetta had hoped to sing at the January 20 inauguration of Barack Obama. After decades of performing and fighting for civil rights, human rights and the right to speak her mind, this beautiful sister to us all recognized that the struggle itself could now be put into a new light. History would be made, but this time for all of the best reasons. This time she wanted to be there and bask in it a little. John Henry had vanquished the machine and we all stand a lot taller for it. Even if Odetta now stands there with us in spirit only.
Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham Alabama on New Year’s Eve, 1931, a time when little prospect could be expected for a Southern Black American baby girl. If those were hard years for most all of us, they were truly the times that tried the souls of the oppressed. Her father’s death just a few years later could have shut out hope for a lesser personality, yet the youthful singer had the uncanny ability to express and release that pain. The sounds that emitted from the society around her—church music, blues, country tunes, work and prison songs—echoed back all that she felt and allowed her to find her voice. This is the voice that has guided people of conscience for over half a century.
Her natural gifts led Odetta to music studies, though the formal operatic training which is evidenced in her performance of even the most rural tune was not something she could truly relate to. Still during the 1940s she completed her degree at Los Angeles City College and then began touring in theatre troupes. But her musical self would not really be born until 1950; Odetta’s involvement in the 1950s folk music revival allowed her to re-experience the music of her roots and she quickly become a force to be reckoned with. The alto that could fixate noisy nightclub audiences soon caught the ear of leaders in the genre such as Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Odetta never just sang a song, she seemed to experience it viscerally at each performance. Stirring could only begin to describe her version of “John Henry”, a piece she ultimately stopped singing for some years as its message touched her so deeply that it took on a life of its own. When Odetta sang about that hammer, you could feel its very weight, when she cried out in anguish, we felt the breath of her sighs in our own heaving chests. She called this “Liberation Music”, yet the tightly shut eyes, furrowed brow and emotive mouth seemed locked in emotional battle through every phrase, every song.
Her commitment to the music’s rage and glory naturally led her to those of the movement. By the earliest 1960s, she was performing for civil rights rallies, singing with the freedom riders and for President Kennedy, and marching with Dr. King. Odetta’s voice rang out over the capitol at the 1963 March on Washington and apparently in the ears of civil rights activists for years as they engaged in prideful civil disobedience.
“This Little Light of Mine” could never shine brighter than in Odetta’s masterful interpretation. Listening to Odetta’s albums brought Bob Dylan into the folk genre, and allowed Janis Joplin to sing from the heart, the abdomen and the soul. Odetta’s was the soundtrack to the movement years and for decades after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Nixon had resigned in shame, the Vietnam War had fired its last shot and Jim Crow evaporated in the hot Alabama sun.
Odetta never slowed down, she never retired from the music which carried her. Those closest to her report that her hope to perform at the 2009 inauguration kept even death at bay. The power of song, in the hands of a cultural warrior such as Odetta, is unceasing. Her loss is vast, but the reverberations of her songs have long been etched into the core of our dissent.
-John Pietaro is a labor organizer and cultural worker from New York – www.flamesofdiscontent.org
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN ‘POLITICAL AFFAIRS’ MAGAZINE ONLINE, DECEMBER 10, 2008