Odetta, the mighty-voiced folk singer and champion for the African-American civil rights movement, died Tuesday at age 77. Her manager Douglas Yeager said that Odetta passed away of heart disease in New York. She had been admitted three weeks ago for kidney failure
Known worldwide as the woman whose powerful voice exuded the emotions of the songs she sang, Odetta used her music to fight against segregation and champion the civil rights movement. Her voice also inspired the likes of Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan.
Despite her struggle with chronic heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis in her lungs, Odetta continued to perform in her old age, singing 60 concerts in the last two years for 90 minutes at a time. As seen in a video of one of her concerts in 2005, Odetta’s voice never wavered despite the weakness of her body.
Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Alabama on December 31, 1930. After the death of her father, she and her family moved to Los Angeles. Though she took her stepfather’s surname (Felious), Odetta used her given name throughout her career.
Music always played an important part in Odetta’s life, even as a child. She was trained as a classical vocalist in childhood and consequently won a place in the group called the Madrigal Singers in junior high school.
She earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. Knowing that a career in classical music didn’t hold much for her, she began to seek out other forms of music. She eventually landed a part in the production of “Finian’s Rainbow” as a chorus member. When the show went to San Francisco, Odetta went with it. It was on this journey that she truly found her voice.
Not long after, Odetta became interested in folk song performances during late-night sessions. These early songs were nearest and dearest to her heart. They were traditional prison songs and work songs from the Old South and singing them helped her with her “hate and fury.” She told The Times,
“Through those songs, I learned things about the history of black people in this country that the historians in school had not been willing to tell us about or had lied about.”
In 1950, Odetta left the theater company and worked at a San Francisco folk club. 1954 saw the recording of her first album, “The Tin Angel,” catching the attention of folk icons Guthrie, Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, according to the LA Times. By the time 1960 came along, Odetta had established herself on the folk music scene.
It was perfect timing. One of the most powerful moments of Odetta’s career came when she sang “O Freedom” at the March on Washington in August 1963.
In 1999, President Clinton awarded Odetta the National Medal of Arts. In 2004, she was a Kennedy Center honoree and a year later, the Library of Congress granted her the Living Legend Award.
Randy Lewis and Mike Boehm, Odetta Holmes Dies at 77; Folk Singer Championed Black History, Civil Rights, L.A. Times
American Folk Music Legend Odetta Dies at 77, MSN Entertainment
Odetta Live in Concert 2005, “House of the Rising Sun”