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Odetta, 1930-2008

Posted by James Reed  December 3, 2008 01:07 AM

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It's 1 in the morning, and I just got a text message that I had been dreading all week. "Oh, no -- Odetta!!!" it read from a friend who knew of my intense admiration for the folk matriarch who was such a profound influence on everyone from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Janis Joplin and Maya Angelou.

Odetta had been ailing for the past week, to the point that her manager, Doug Yeager, had requested friends and fans send get-well cards to her in the hospital. At 77, she finally passed away yesterday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Heart disease was given as the cause.

Two years ago, after several failed attempts, I finally grasped Odetta’s artistry. On the eve of what would be her final performance at the Newport Folk Festival, I wrote a story -- more an appreciation piece, really -- for the Globe about why Odetta still mattered. Specifically, I wanted to explore how someone born in the late ’70s could come to exalt a legend so closely associated with the civil rights movement, a tumultuous era far removed from my middle-class upbringing in Illinois. I concluded that I simply wasn’t ready for Odetta when I discovered her in high school, when Baez and Dylan were my heroes.

I spoke to Odetta for that story, and I'm glad I did, even though she wasn’t the easiest interview. She was receptive and understanding of my theory that sometimes we're not prepared to appreciate certain kinds of art when we first encounter them. “Well, of course, the music makes sense to you now,” she told me on the phone from her apartment in New York. “Our world has changed so much since you were 18 and now you're 28.”

True to her regal reputation, Odetta didn’t suffer fools, especially late in her life, and I made the mistake of asking what songs she would be playing that weekend in Newport. “I don’t understand where these questions are taking us,” she said curtly. Point taken, and after just nine minutes on the phone, it was clear I had gotten what I needed. She very politely thanked me for my interest in her music. We hung up.

Obviously, it wasn’t personal, and besides, I couldn’t be upset with someone who had inspired me so much. Every time I hear her voice -- that majestic, booming instrument that seemed to descend from on high -- I’m reminded of how transformative music really is. To me, Odetta harnessed a visceral energy, a vibe as fierce as her Afro, whether she was singing folk, blues, spirituals, or pop songs. I dare you to watch the brief clip of Odetta performing “Water Boy” in “No Direction Home,” Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary on Dylan, and not get the chills. Or maybe you’ll feel a little terrified when she starts barking and bellowing as the camera suddenly draws back almost as a reaction to the force she unleashes.

As soon as I heard about her death, my first and only inclination was to pull all of my Odetta albums on vinyl -- hard-won treasures secured in the last minute of bidding on eBay. For such an icon of song, Odetta rarely gets enough credit for what she accomplished as a musician. She’s renowned for her spirit, her conviction, her role in the fight for civil rights, but much of her catalog is shamefully out of print.

There are so many memorable Odetta moments on record, and they’re as stirring now as when they were pressed 30, 40, and 50 years ago. From “Sings Ballads and Blues,” her 1956 solo debut, she sounds like a mournful siren who’s lost her way on “Deep Blue Sea.” On “Easy Rider,” from that same album, she channels the indomitable spirit of Leadbelly, an early influence who would inform her work until the very end. Since 1999, Odetta was on M.C. Records, a New York-based blues label, and she recorded many Leadbelly standards (“Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line”) and kept them in her concert repertoire.

In 1960, Odetta released the album “Christmas Spirituals,” and gospel doesn’t get much more persuasive than Odetta’s rousing, seven-minute take on “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” From “It’s a Mighty World” (1964), Odetta issues a call to arms with “Got My Mind on Freedom.” On the more pop-oriented “Odetta” (1967), she taps into her ancestry with a dizzying instrumental called “African Prayer,” with just Odetta chanting amid a swirl of brass instruments.

From “Odetta Sings Dylan” (1965), put on “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and marvel at how she takes her time to illustrate the loneliness of waiting for a true love to return. For the lucky ones who own it on vinyl (since it never came out on CD), “Odetta Sings” (1970) is a collection of mostly covers, another testament to the power of Odetta’s masterful interpretive skills. I’ll venture to say her version of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” is superior to anything Mick Jagger could muster.

She was full of surprises in recent years, too. Indie-pop auteur Stephin Merritt recruited Odetta to sing “Waltzing Me All the Way Home” on the 6ths album “Hyacinths and Thistles” in 2000. He later said Odetta had told him she thought the song was about two gay black soldiers during World War II, which was news to Merritt.

Not that you’d know it from iTunes or Amazon, but the list of Odetta’s unforgettable performances goes on and on. There’s a decent amount of YouTube videos of her, particularly more recent concerts, but now it’s really up to a record label to crack open the vaults and get Odetta’s full catalog back in circulation. After all, a national treasure deserves a national audience.

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8 comments so far...
  1. :(

    Posted by reindeergirl December 3, 08 07:00 AM
  1. Her recent music on MC-Records was incredible. I encourage everyone to check it out to see how she was still as relevant in the 21st century as she was in the mid 20th.

    She will be missed.

    Posted by James Patton December 3, 08 08:01 AM
  1. Very well done appreciation, James.

    Would you -- or anyone hereabouts -- know when/where Odetta's last Boston appearance was? I saw her only once, opening for someone at the Harborlights Pavilion on Boston's waterfront.

    I want to say she was opening for Ray Charles (or might have been for Bob Dylan, even). Maybe that's memory playing tricks on me, I don't know.

    But I did she her perform there -- my one and only time seeing her.

    RIP, good woman.

    Posted by Joe N December 3, 08 10:50 AM
  1. I was blessed to have heard Odetta perform on two occasions about 15 years ago. She filled the room and transported the audience. When she invited us to sing with her, the energy she helped draw out gave me chills. Too young to have participated in the Civil Rights Movement, I still felt the power of singing "We Shall OVercome" with her. She was a mighty performer and inspiration and leaves a hole too big to fill.

    Posted by Pat December 3, 08 10:57 AM
  1. A powerful voice in this world will be missed. I first was exposed to her beautiful greatness via an EASY RIDER type compilation from the 1970's as a teenager, I had wondered what this 'folk singer' was doing among biker rock....and came to appreciate her spiritualness as well as grace of voice.....

    "Easy to be Hard" was the first song i had heard her sing, and "Easy Rider" of course was on that same album....

    Posted by FrankD! December 3, 08 11:04 AM
  1. I remember first hearing her in the 60s as a small child when my older brother played her albums, along with Dylan, Baez and the other folkies. Her voice was incredible. I was lucky enough to see her in Newport a few times.

    I was very much looking forward to seeing her perform at Barack Obama's inauguration in January. I guess she'll be there in spirit.

    Posted by Opus December 3, 08 12:11 PM
  1. Odetta's voice is opera for the people

    Posted by ron December 3, 08 04:16 PM
  1. Odetta's last performance was this past July in Franklin Park as part of the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park series. This performance signified the 40th anniversary of Odetta playing in the park as part of the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park Series. It was an amazingly moving evening and so wonderful to see her on stage in the park. In a place where her music truly resonated. We will miss you Odetta. We are blessed to have you with us.

    Posted by MWSound December 13, 08 08:06 PM

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The latest news, commentary, and reviews on music in Boston and beyond.


Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

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Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.

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