No folk-music purist, Odetta’s genius was as an innovative song stylist.
Once, ahead of a concert in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I asked Odetta about music heard in her house growing up. Her response was immediate and–to me–surprising: The Grand Ole Opry. She went on to recall her father, who died when she was a child, sitting in his easy chair listening every week to that country music jamboree, beamed over clear-channel AM radio into her family’s Birmingham home.
Her point in telling that story was, I think, to defy expectation. Defying expectation was something Odetta did in music–where her sensational voice could be a pure narrow flute in one phrase and a growly shout the next–and in life. At the age of 6, she left Alabama with her mother on a segregated train and settled in Los Angeles. Odetta’s mother expected her to sing in church. A voice teacher in Los Angeles trained her in opera and lieder and expected her to be the next Marian Anderson, whose groundbreaking 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, heard live on radio by millions, had defied Washington’s race codes and made a classical music career seem possible for an African-America artist. But Odetta loved theater and wanted to be a bohemian. Barely out of her teens in the early ’50s, she was singing in San Francisco in a touring production of Finian’s Rainbow and picked up a guitar to fit in with after-hours scene.
Soon she was listening to field recordings from Louisiana prisons, to the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, to everything she could get her hands on. Pete Seeger heard her in a living room–“this quiet little girl,” he’s said, singing Leadbelly’s songs; he told her he wished the twelve-string guitar giant was still alive to hear it. Within a few years her titanic contralto was one of the defining sounds of the emerging folk music revival and the sound of the early civil rights movement, culminating in Odetta’s 1963 appearance at the March on Washington–singing at the Lincoln Memorial, in Marian Anderson’s footsteps after all.
Since Odetta’s death on Tuesday night, much has been written of her vast influence on Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and numerous others. If so, it is because she was–despite the pieties of the early folk revival–never a purist but an innovative song stylist. She’d take a folk standard like Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special”–usually shouted out at breakneck barrelhouse speed–and slow it down, wrap her voice around a gentle rocking beat, turn it into a jailhouse drama moving in a few verses from plaintive to defiant. Listen to her 2006 performance on the Woodsong’s Old-Time Radio Hour:
Odetta recorded her early tracks backed up by the great jazz bass player Bill Lee. With Tennessee Ernie Ford she sang “What A Friend We Have in Jesus;” in this vintage clip from his television show, listen to their pure and sweet duet:
Up through her final appearances in recent years–her voice in her 70s still a force of nature and her theatrical sense undimmed, despite arriving on stage in a wheelchair–she would take familiar songs and turn them inside out; or intuitively, in the middle of a concert, merge one old tune into another, to the illumination of both.
It was just such a moment of intuition, Odetta told me, which led her, at the Lincoln Memorial, to pull together three very different songs into what she called her “Freedom Trilogy:” “Oh Freedom,” “Come and Go With Me to That Land,” and “I’m on My Way.” Though Odetta helped make “We Shall Overcome” famous, she personally preferred the present-tense momentum of that last number in the trilogy: “I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.”