Odetta Holmes dies at 77; folk singer championed black history, civil rights
Odetta, the classically trained folk, blues and gospel singer who used her powerfully rich and dusky voice to champion African American music and civil rights issues for more than half a century starting in the folk revival of the 1950s, has died. She was 77.
She was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City for a checkup in mid-November but went into kidney failure. She died there Tuesday of heart disease, her manager, Doug Yeager, told the Associated Press.
With a repertoire that included 19th century slave songs and spirituals as well as the topical ballads of such 20th century folk icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Odetta became one of the most beloved figures in folk music.
She was said to have influenced the emergence of artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman.
“The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” Dylan once said. “From Odetta, I went to Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, little by little uncovering more as I went along.”
Her affinity for traditional African American folk songs was a hallmark of her long career, along with a voice that could easily sweep from dark, husky low notes to delicate yet goose bump-inducing high register tones.
“The first time I heard Odetta sing,” Seeger once said, “she sang Leadbelly’s ‘Take This Hammer’ and I went and told her how I wish Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her.”
She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930. Her father died when she was young and she moved to Los Angeles at age 6 with her mother, sister and stepfather. She took the surname of her stepfather Zadock Felious, but throughout her career she used just her given name.
And although Los Angeles wasn’t as overtly racist as the Deep South, she suffered some of the same indignities that came with being black.
“We lived within walking distance of Marshall High School,” Odetta told The Times some years ago, “but they didn’t let colored people go there, so we had to get on the bus and go to Belmont High School.”
She attended Los Angeles City College after high school and earned a degree in music.
Trained as a classical vocalist as a child, she won a spot with a group called the Madrigal Singers in junior high school. She also realized early that despite her classical training, her options in that area were going to be limited because of the racism at the time.
By 19, Odetta had turned her attention to other forms of music and landed a part in a production of “Finian’s Rainbow” as a chorus member. When the musical went on the road to San Francisco, she went with it.
The trip marked an important crossroads in her emergence as a folk singer.
She met an old friend from school who had settled in the city’s North Beach neighborhood, and during a visit Odetta was exposed to a late-night session of folk songs.
“That night I heard hours and hours of songs that really touched where I live,” she told The Times. “I borrowed a guitar and learned three chords, and started to sing at parties.”
The traditional prison songs that she learned in her early days hit home the hardest and helped her come to terms with what she called the deep-seated hate and fury in her.
“As I did those songs, I could work on my hate and fury without being antisocial,” she recalled. “Through those songs, I learned things about the history of black people in this country that the historians in school had not been willing to tell us about or had lied about.”
Odetta left the theater company in 1950 and took a job at a folk club in San Francisco. She soon began to tour and recorded her first album, “The Tin Angel,” in 1954. She soon caught the attention of such folk-music icons as Guthrie, Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. She was a fixture on the folk music scene by the time the genre’s commercial boom came in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
She played at the Newport Folk Festival, the showcase event for folk music, four times between 1959 and 1965. She also had a recording contract with Vanguard Records, which at the height of the folk music craze was the genre’s leading label.
Over the years, Odetta branched into acting, with dramatic and singing roles in film and television including “Cinerama Holiday,” “Sanctuary” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
But traditional folk music remained her forte.
“The folk repertoire is our inheritance. Don’t have to like it, but we need to hear it,” she said. “I love getting to schools and telling kids there’s something else out there. It’s from their forebears, and its an alternative to what they hear on the radio. As long as I am performing, I will be pointing out that heritage that is ours.”
In 1999, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Clinton. In 2004, she was a Kennedy Center honoree. A year later, the Library of Congress honored her with its Living Legend Award.
Information on survivors and funeral services was not immediately available.
Lewis and Boehm are Times staff writers.
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