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
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 Dec. 2 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, said manager Doug Yeager.
“The power would just come out of her like people wouldn’t believe,” he
She was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital with kidney failure about three weeks
ago, 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.
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
“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
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.”
While she hoped to sing at Obama’s inauguration, she had not been officially
invited, Yeager said. Her last big concert was on Oct. 4 at San Francisco’s
Golden Gate Park, where she performed in front of tens of thousands at the
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. She also performed Oct. 25-26 in
In 1999, she was honored with a National Medal of the Arts. Then-President
Bill Clinton said her career showed “us all that songs have the power to change
the heart and change the world.”
The renowned singer also appeared at the First Amendment Center in 1999 as
part of the center’s First Amendment in Concert series (see video).
She was nominated for a 1963 Grammy award for best folk recording for “Odetta
Sings Folk Songs.” Two more Grammy nominations came in recent years, for her
1999 “Blues Everywhere I Go” and her 2005 album “Gonna Let It Shine.”
Among her notable early works were her 1956 album “Odetta Sings Ballads and
Blues,” which included such songs as “Muleskinner Blues” and “Jack O’ Diamonds”;
and her 1957 “At the Gate of Horn,” which featured the popular spiritual “He’s
Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
Her 1965 album “Odetta Sings Dylan” included such standards as “Don’t Think
Twice, It’s All Right,” “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are
In a 1978 Playboy interview, Dylan said, “the first thing that turned
me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he found “just something vital and
personal” when he heard an early album of hers in a record store as a teenager.
“Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier
for an acoustical guitar,” he said.
Belafonte also cited her as a key influence on his hugely successful
recording career, and she was a guest singer on his 1960 album, “Belafonte
Returns to Carnegie Hall.”
She continued to record in recent years; her 2001 album “Looking for a Home
(Thanks to Leadbelly)” paid tribute to the great blues singer to whom she was
Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, she moved with her family to
Los Angeles at age 6. Her father had died when she was young and she took her
stepfather’s last name, Felious. Hearing her in glee club, a junior high teacher
made sure she got music lessons, but Odetta became interested in folk music in
her late teens and turned away from classical studies.
She got much of her early experience at the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles,
where she sang and played occasional stage roles in the early 1950s.
“What power of characterization and projection of mood are hers, even though
plainly clad and sitting or standing in half light!” a Los Angeles Times
critic wrote in 1955.
Over the years, she picked up occasional acting roles. None other than famed
Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper reported in 1961 that she “comes through
beautifully” in the film “Sanctuary.”
In The Washington Post interview, Odetta theorized that humans
developed music and dance because of fear, “fear of God, fear that the sun would
not come back, many things. I think it developed as a way of worship or to
appease something. ... The world hasn’t improved, and so there’s always
something to sing about.”
Odetta is survived by a daughter, Michelle Esrick of New York City, and a
son, Boots Jaffre, of Fort Collins, Colo. She was divorced about 40 years ago
and never remarried, her manager said.
A memorial service was planned for next month, Yeager said.