Odetta, 1930-2008

Editor's note: One of my musical heroes, the South African singer Miriam Makeba, recently passed away. Tuesday brought the unfortunate news of the passing of another giant, Odetta. Our occasional guest poster Judith Weisenfeld sent me this remembrance. Here's an interview with Odetta in which she sings a spiritual and talks about her musical phrasing. Here's an audio-visual obituary as well.

Odetta (1930-2008)

by Judith Weisenfeld

To say that Odetta was a hero of mine does not begin to get at the influence she has had on my life. I “discovered” Odetta in my late teens when I had begun to participate in what was still an active folk music scene in New York in the early 1980s and had immersed myself in the music to build a repertoire. Hearing her music and learning about her involvement in the Civil Rights movement opened up worlds that made so many more things possible than I had dreamed of before I knew of Odetta. She sang folk music –she rocked spirituals, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, chain gang songs, and Anglo-American ballads equally – and was also a historian of American music whose repertoire came from deep research in the music archives of the Smithsonian, the National Archives, and other repositories. My discovery of Odetta taught me that one could create a rich portrait of African American history from non-textual sources, that constructions of “authentic” black culture were more complex and textured than I had imagined, and that historical work – in her case, pursued through music – matters and can make things happen in the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights.

Her legacy in the music world is clear as her influence on a wide range of musicians – from Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Joan Amatrading to Cassandra Wilson, Jewel, and Tracy Chapman, among others – is unmatched. Her impact has extended far beyond the realm of musical performers, however. When asked late in life about what music had been important to her for her activist work, Rosa Parks responded, “Essentially, all the songs of Odetta.” Parks is not the only participant in the Civil Rights Movement to have learned and drawn inspiration from Odetta’s music.

I have for many months now been working with my friend and colleague Judith Casselberry to organize a tribute to Odetta at Princeton and we were beyond excited that she had agreed to visit with us so that we could explore her career and many legacies. I am in deep mourning today that I will never have the opportunity to tell her in person how important her work has been for my life. I would probably not be doing what I do had I not heard her singing “Ramblin Round Your City” on the 1972 Tribute to Woodie Guthrie album in a friends’ apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and gone on to ravenous consumption of her many other recordings.Although she was an active performer and recording artist until just weeks before her death, the Jazz Foundation of America provided great support to her for the past few years and her manager asks her fans to help make it possible for the foundation to aid other artists in need in the future.

The New York Times recently conducted an amazing interview with her that I commend to anyone familiar with her career or interested in learning about her. I agree with Judith Casselberry, who wrote today that Odetta "lived an amazing and powerful life and her example changed how I move through the world."


Kathryn Lofton said…
Thank you for this. I now have "Ramblin' Round" on a sorrowful repeat one loop: "There's a hungry mouth for every peach." Odetta persists in our remembrance, in the arc echoes of her Vanguard voice.
rjc said…
Yes, thank you for this, Judith. Odetta had a powerful impact on me, too, and your reflections on the ways she influenced your trajectory resonate with my own "discovery" of Woody Guthrie -- which led me very quickly to Odetta and others. These lives, and their voices and expressions, access an American religious history too often overlooked in the academy.

Is your Princeton tribute to Odetta still on?
Judith said…
Thanks, Katie and Chip. Yes, I think people here will want to still take the opportunity to celebrate her life and legacies.