On this day, just 13 years ago, December 2, 2008, a very powerful voice in American folk music went silent. Odetta Holmes, who was known to the world simply by her first name, died at the age of 77.
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930. According to The Washington Post:
After showing musical skill at a young age, she began classical vocal training that developed into ambition for a concert singing career. Her mother hoped she would follow the racially groundbreaking career of opera singer Marian Anderson. ...
After graduating from high school, Odetta followed her mother into work as a domestic worker. She also studied music in night classes at Los Angeles City College and found choral work in the West Coast touring company of the musical "Finian's Rainbow."
The show took her to San Francisco in 1949, and it was there that she was exposed to the folk music scene.
Odetta, who came to be known as the "Voice of the Civil Rights Movement," sang “I’m on My Way” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. Also in 1963, she appeared on television with President John F. Kennedy on a nationally televised civil rights special called "Dinner With the President." She marched with King for voting rights in the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.
And she played at the Thirsty Ear Festival at Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch in 2001. That's the only time I ever got to see her perform live.
Bob Dylan said in a Playboy interview just a couple of years ago " Bob Dylan, who said, "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson."
Here's Odetta singing a chilling tune on Belgian TV in the '60s:
I believe this is the very first Odetta song I ever heard back in the '60s, Woodie Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty":
Skip ahead a few decades and here's Odetta with a full band singing Lead Belly's "Jim Crow Blues" with a full band. (Trigger warning for sensitive right-wingers: This song could contain traces of Critical Race Theory. Take note and protect the children):
In the spirit of the Christmas season, this is from Odetta's appearance on the Ed Sullivan show on Christmas night in 1960:
And here is a song I vividly remember from the time I saw Odetta at the Thirsty Ear Festival in 2001. She's backed here by The Holmes Brothers.
Let it shine!
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