Legendary folk singer and human rights activist Odetta performs at the Elma Lewis Playhouse in Franklin Park for the first time in 40 years to some 300 devoted fans in this July 2008 file photo. The acclaimed artist who influenced generations of musicians died last Tuesday after battling heart disease. She was 77. (Don West photo, www.donwestfoto.com)
NEW YORK — Odetta’s monumental voice rang out in August 1963 when she sang “I’m on My Way” at the historic March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
She had hoped to perform again in Washington next month when Barack Obama is inaugurated as the nation’s first black president. But the acclaimed folk singer, who influenced generations of musicians and was an icon in the civil rights struggle, died last Tuesday after battling heart disease. She was 77.
In spite of failing health, Odetta performed 60 concerts in the last two years, and her singing ability never diminished, manager Doug Yeager said.
“The power would just come out of her like people wouldn’t believe,” he said.
She was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital with kidney failure last month, Yeager said in confirming her death.
With her classically trained voice and spare guitar, Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites.
First coming to prominence in the 1950s, she influenced Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and other superstars of the folk music boom.
With an Odetta record on the turntable, listeners could close their eyes and imagine themselves hearing the sounds of spirituals and blues as they rang out from a weathered back porch or around a long-vanished campfire a century before.
“What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs; to understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer,” Time magazine wrote in 1960.
“She is a keening Irishwoman in ‘Foggy Dew,’ a chain-gang convict in ‘Take This Hammer,’ a deserted lover in ‘Lass from the Low Country,”’ Time wrote.
Odetta called on her fellow blacks to “take pride in the history of the American Negro.” When she sang at the March on Washington — along with Baez, Dylan, Josh White and Peter, Paul and Mary — “Odetta’s great, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill,” The New York Times said.
“I’m not a real folk singer,” she told The Washington Post in 1983. “I don’t mind people calling me that, but I’m a musical historian. I’m a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I’ve been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.”(p2)
The video-sharing site has a host of clips of the legendary folk singer performing her own tunes and blues standards alike in a variety of iconic venues, from the Newport Folk Festival to "The Johnny Cash Show." More »
Over at boston.com, James Reed penned a brief, but thorough and heartfelt retrospective on Odetta's career. More »