I woke up this morning to the news that Odetta died yesterday. Bob Dylan once said that Odetta was the first thing that turned him on to folk singing. I saw her perform only once–in 2000 at the Strawberry Music Festival in California. I love Strawberry for many reasons. It’s a place to gather with friends, to be with fellow lovers of music–all kinds of music, from bluegrass to zydeco and from South African to Irish and from rock to soul–to camp out for the weekend high in the mountains near Yosemite, and to take the music back home with you. Hog Ranch Radio broadcasts a local signal and you can record virtually everything to relive the many amazing performances.
Odetta was different. It was Saturday night, September 2. An announcement was made. Unlike other performers Odetta would not allow her set to be broadcast. The only way to experience Odetta was to be there in the moment. Take only the memory with you.
She was 70 years old. She sat on stage and began to sing. She was soulful and sexy; playful and naughty; and she was oh, so deep. What I remember most is the power of her presence; her voice.
From today’s story at Time.com: For a handful of black singers, their discography is an aural history, centuries deep, of abduction, enslavement, social and sexual abuse by the whites in power – and of the determination first to outlive the ignominy branded on the race, then to overcome it. In her commanding presence, charismatic delivery and determination to sing black truth to white power, Odetta was the female Paul Robeson.
And: For Odetta and many other survivors of the Civil Rights Movement, the election of Barack Obama as president signaled a fulfilling chapter in the struggle. As she sank toward death in New York City, Odetta had an Obama poster taped on the wall across from her bed. Hospitalized with kidney failure on Monday, she kept willing herself to live because, her manager Doug Yeager wrote on a fansite just before her death, “Odetta believes she is going to sing at Obama’s inauguration and I believe that is the reason she is still alive.”
I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes and watch and listen to Odetta sing “The Midnight Special” and “House of the Rising Sun.” What a voice. What a presence.