Odetta is a human jukebox of traditional American folk music. Her repertoire, both on record and in concert, ranges from 19th-Century slave songs and spirituals to the topical ballads of such 20th-Century folk icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
And, although she periodically strays into other styles of music--she's sung jazz, Broadway show tunes, even opera--Odetta likes nothing better than to apply her rich, powerful voice and intense, evocative singing style to traditional American folk music--the music that made us think, then made us act, in times past.
"People are always asking me, 'Why don't you do more modern songs?' And I guess it's because I'm an ancestor worshiper and a historian," said Odetta, who will appear Saturday night at the Del Mar Shores Auditorium.
"This is the music that turned my life around, and I feel a need to continue that music so that more and more people can hear it--and hear messages from those who have gone before us, hear how our ancestors got us through to better positions than they were in."
History, after all, has a way of repeating itself, she said, and the message contained in these vintage tunes is as relevant today as when they were written.
"We in this country are terribly confused," Odetta said. "I'm not sure we know exactly how we're confused, but there is something amiss with millions of dollars being shipped into other countries to kill civilians, and then there's not enough money to continue providing medicine for the elderly, who have worked all their lives and contributed to this country's welfare and should be receiving dividends, or for working people and their children.
"There's a lot of stuff that just doesn't compute, and I think people need to be assuaged, to be soothed, by knowing they're not the only ones feeling like there's something wrong.
"The words to traditional folk songs were written out of concern, and there's as much to be concerned about now as there ever was."
Odetta, who turned 59 Dec. 31, was born in Birmingham, Ala. She lost her father when she was 6, and later moved to Los Angeles with her mother, sister and stepfather.
There she sang in her junior high school glee club and began taking private voice lessons. She later worked as an amateur at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood and studied music at Los Angeles City College. In 1949, she won a part in the chorus of the touring musical production of "Finian's Rainbow."
Later that year, the musical hit San Francisco for an extended stay, Odetta recalled, and it was there--in the coffeehouses she frequented after the shows--that she discovered folk music.
"For the first time in my life, I heard the music of the people I came from," she said. "One of the things we read in our history books, when I was in grammar school, was that the slaves were singing all the time because they were happy, but the songs I heard debunked that theory.
"And hearing this music made me feel proud. I straightened my back and kinked my hair, and from that point on I was determined to learn all there was to learn, not just about my black heritage, but about my American heritage."
Odetta promptly left the "Finian's" chorus line and ventured out on her own. She made her debut as a solo folk singer in San Francisco's Hungry i, earning $25 a night; she subsequently hit the road, singing in folk clubs and coffeehouses up and down the West Coast.
By the mid-1950s, Odetta was touring nationwide and in Canada; she cut her first record, for San Francisco's Tradition label, in 1956. With the advent of the folk revival, she began getting plenty of national attention.
Odetta performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, 1960, 1964 and 1965 and released several albums on Vanguard Records, the home of fellow folkies such as Joan Baez, Doc Watson and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
Odetta has since toured Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies and Northwest Africa and has recorded for independent folk labels. She's also made countless television appearances and popped up in several films--including "Sanctuary" and the TV movie "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"--in both singing and dramatic roles.
She said she plans to continue doing plenty of benefit work for social and environmental organizations and causes, something she's always been known for.
"I have to do that. I need to put something back into the pot; I need to be helpful and useful to those who are on the firing line with their energies focusing on areas that will improve the lives of more people in this country."