Folksinger, songwriter, guitarist
The name Odetta is probably unfamiliar to most people in the generation raised on MTV, yet she is one of the pillars of twentieth-century music. A folksinger distinguished by the power and clarity of her voice as well as the richness and intensity of her delivery, Odetta has also functioned as a living archive of music. By tirelessly researching, recording, and touring, and drawing on a variety of musical genres, she has kept alive the legacy of early folk and blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Leadbelly. Odetta has had a significant influence on modern music, providing inspiration for such performers as Janis Joplin and Joan Armatrading.
The singer was born Odetta Holmes on December 31, 1930, in Alabama. Her father died when she was quite young, and her mother remarried, giving the children their stepfather’s surname, Felious, and moving the family to Los Angeles when Odetta was six. The youngster took piano and voice lessons and by the time she entered secondary school, she was beginning to discover her immense talent as a singer. She was the star of her high school glee club and, at the age of 14, began singing at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood. Odetta appeared to be headed for a career as a concert singer until some friends she met while studying music at Los Angeles City College introduced her to the embryonic modern folk music scene. In 1949 she began gigging in West Coast clubs as a solo act, accompanying herself on guitar. Early in her career, she purchased a wood-bodied guitar nicknamed “Baby,” on which she did all of her arrangements for years. While she has never considered herself a proficient guitarist, she did in time develop a unique sound that was eventually canonized in the folk music world as “the Odetta strum.”
Within five years, Odetta had built up a considerable reputation for herself on the West Coast. By the mid- to late 1950s, the singer was touring the United States and Canada; by 1961, she had played Carnegie Hall and appeared twice at the renowned Newport Folk Festival. Odetta was unquestionably one of the brightest stars of the folk music renaissance of the early 1960s, which also saw the first of many world tours for her. Reaching much of mainstream America through the medium of television as well, Odetta received acclaim for her appearance on a musical special with musician Harry Belafonte and stole the show from an impressive roster of singers in the 1963 program Dinner With the President. She also performed as an actress in several films and television programs, most notably The Autobiography
For the Record…
Name originally Odetta Holmes; surname legally changed to Felious, 1937; born December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Reuben and Flora (Sanders) Holmes; married Don Gordon in 1959 (divorced); married Gary Shead in the late 1960s (divorced); married Iversen “Louisiana Red’ Minter in 1977. Education: Earned a degree in classical music and musical comedy from Los Angeles City College.
Professional folksinger. Worked as an amateur singer at Turnabout Theater, Hollywood, CA, 1945; performed in the chorus of Finian’s Rainbow, San Francisco, CA, 1949; has performed in numerous concerts and festivals, including Newport Folk Festival, New Orleans Jazz Festival, and Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Actress appearing on stage, in motion pictures, and in television films, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Sanctuary. Guest on television programs, including Tonight With Belafonte, 1959, and Dinner With the President, 1963.
phy of Miss Jane Pittman and the movie version of American novelist William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.
Odetta’s unique and amalgamated style ensured her popularity beyond the 1950s and 1960s. In the New York Times Jon Peeples described the singer’s performance in Merkin Concert Hall’s 1989 Voices of Change series: “She strung together blues and spirituals, many of them unfamiliar. Over the steady rhythm of her guitar and her tapping foot, she sent her voice to its clear heights and its nasal depths, bringing out the field holler roots of her music.” The musician has noted that her choice of material at a particular concert depends largely on her perception of the audience, and she prefers solo performances since they allow her the freedom to sing what she feels like singing.
Odetta’s vocals along with her self-acquired knowledge of the guitar combine to create a dramatic effect. “I’ll play the same few chords,” she pointed out to Robert Yelin in Frets Magazine, “but by varying my strumming, by harmonizing notes within a chord and picking some other notes—that way I’ll achieve the sounds of fullness. I love the opposite forces I can create by singing a smooth melody line and hearing my rhythm playing churning away beneath it. I love those dramatics in music.”
Often shunning the strict tenets of folk purists, Odetta explained her reason for employing numerous techniques in her performances, as quoted by Yelin: “If a song is important enough for me to sing, I’ll find a way to accompany myself on guitar. I would make up chords to fit the singing—I’m not a purist in any way, shape, or form. If I felt I needed to sing a song so badly, and I couldn’t play accompaniment for it, I would sing it a capella.”
One of Odetta’s most notable traits is her limitless curiosity about music. In addition to demonstrating a scholarly tenacity in researching traditional forms—usually at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—she has always been willing to try new styles. Accordingly, she has performed with such partners as musicians Count Basie and Bob Dylan and writer Langston Hughes and in various genres, including blues and gospel. Odetta’s versatility is demonstrated in her versions of the sprirituals “Hold On” and “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold Me Down,” her a capella arrangement of “God’s a-goin’ to Cut You Down,” her heartrending rendition of “All the Pretty Little Horses,” which evokes the injustice of plantation life in the American South, and her performance of the prison song “Been in the Pen.”
Whether standing in front of a symphony orchestra or alone with her guitar, Odetta is a commanding presence on stage. Her fans claim that the best of her recordings—most of which are out of print—fall far short of capturing the impact of her live performances. In the liner notes to Odetta Sings the Blues, critic Adam Barnes described her as “a large and significant voice that can swell with majesty, phrase delicately, dipping deep into the bottomless well of song.”
My Eyes Have Seen, 1959.
Sometimes I Feel Like Crying, RCA, 1962.
Odetta at Town Hall, 1962.
Odetta Sings Folk Songs, RCA, 1963.
One Grain of Sand, 1963.
Odetta at the Gate of Horn, Tradition.
Odetta Sings Dylan, 1965.
Ballad for Americans, 1965.
Odetta in Japan, 1965.
Best of Odetta, 1967.
Odetta at Carnegie Hall, 1967.
Odetta Sings the Blues, Riverside, 1968.
The Essential Odetta, Vanguard, 1973.
Christmas Spirituals, Alcazar.
Movin’ It On, Rose Quartz, 1987.
Best of Odetta, 1991.
Odetta and the Blues, Fantasy Original Blues Classics, 1992.
Frets, April 1981.
High Fidelity, November 1983.
Jet, October 9, 1980.
New York Times, September 17, 1989.
Stereo Review, March 1988.
Variety, November 6, 1985.
Other sources include album liner notes to Odetta Sings the Blues.
With the release of Looking for a Home in 2001, Odetta returned to her roots to pay homage to a prominent influence, Leadbelly. According to Sing Out!, “Nearly half a century after she started making records, Odetta’s new recordings remain essential.” She began her career in the late 1940s, mining traditional gospel, folksongs, and blues for her repertoire. While often associated with the American folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, she recorded her first album before the Kingston Trio released “Tom Dooley, ” and remained active long after the revival’s demise. Odetta worked in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and was given the key to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1965. She showed a willingness to branch out from traditional music, experimenting with jazz and recording the songs of contemporary writers like Bob Dylan. Craig Harris wrote in Music Hound Folk, “Odetta is one of folk music’s most influential performers.”
Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930 on New Year’s Eve, the only daughter of Reuben Holmes and Flora (Sanders) Holmes. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1937 and she adopted the surname of her stepfather, Zadock Felious. At the age of ten she discovered her vocal ability, and at 13 she began taking voice lessons. She joined the glee club in junior high school, took piano lessons, and planned for a career as a concert singer. After graduating from Belmont High School in 1947, Odetta started taking night classes at Los Angeles City College, eventually earning degrees in musical comedy and classical music. Folk music, however, would soon interrupt her theatrical career. Between an appearance in Finian’s Rainbow at the Greek Theater and a job working summer stock in San Francisco, she was introduced to the fledgling West Coast folk music scene. “School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together,” she told Liane Hansen at National Public Radio. “But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music.”
She worked as a live-in housekeeper and became a regular performer at the Tin Angel in San Francisco. At 21, she shortened her name to Odetta when a nightclub owner suggested that her last name was too difficult to pronounce. With an ability to sing throughout the soprano range, Odetta developed into a distinctive vocalist. Accompanied by “Baby,” her acoustic guitar, she offered deep, committed interpretations of
Born December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Reuben and Flora (Sanders) Holmes; name originally Odetta Holmes; surname legally changed to Felious in 1937; shortened name to Odetta in 1951; married Don Gordon, 1959 (divorced); married Gary Shead, late 1960s (divorced); married versen Minter, 1977. Education: Earned degree in classical music and musical comedy from Los Angeles City College.
Career: Performed in the chorus of Finian’s Rainbow, San Francisco, CA, 1949; recorded debut, Tin Angel, 1954; appeared on the television program Tonight with Belafonte 1959, and in the movie Sanctuary, 1960; sang at March on Washington, 1963; hosted Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, 1975; performed in Bessie Smith and appeared on PBS for Ramblin’ with Odetta, 1980s; released Blues Everywhere I Co, 2000.
Address: Record Company —M.C. Records, P.O. Box 1788, Huntington Station, NY 11746.
the old folk songs. Odetta told John Milward in the liner notes of Livin ’ with the Blues, “When I play the guitar, I can be so deadly serious that even I’ve got to laugh.”
Odetta’s reputation grew quickly. In 1953 she traveled to New York City where she appeared at the Blue Angel for a two-week run. Both Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte supported her early career and in 1954 she recorded Tin Angel with Larry Mohr. Two years later she released her proper debut, Sings Ballads and Blues, for Tradition. “In its day, it was quite an influential recording,” noted Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide. “Bob Dylan, in fact, once cited this record in particular as the one that made him decide to trade in his electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar.” Odetta followed the album with At the Gate of Horn, a live album recorded at the renowned Chicago folk club of the same name. In the liner notes to The Tradition Masters Jim Bessman wrote that “her Tradition titles did indeed serve as lessons in American folk music, not to mention source material for any number of artists.”
In 1960 Odetta began the most active decade of her career, a ten-year period that would include 16 albums, numerous festival appearances, and new artistic directions. While she continued to sing traditional folk music, she offended folk purists by also delving into jazz and contemporary songs. 1962’s Odetta and the Blues featured the backing of Buck Clayton and his band on a series of jazz songs, while 1965’s Odetta Sings Dylan utilized electric guitar to pay tribute to a singer that she had influenced. Unterberger described the album as “one of the first albums entirely devoted to Bob Dylan interpretations, and one of the best.” In fact, Dylan stopped by the studio to correct a few lyrics that the publisher had copied incorrectly. “I asked him to leave,” Odetta recalled to Jools Holland at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “because it’s hard enough to record.... and I didn’t want the composer standing around saying, ’I didn’t mean it like that.‘”
Odetta also became involved in the civil rights movement during the 1960s. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and sang at the 1963 March on Washington. The same year, she performed for John F. Kennedy on the television program Dinner with the President. Wrote Milward, “Odetta saw little distinction between the personal and the political, which is why it was only natural for her to carry Dr. King’s dream to concerts and recording sessions.”
In 1972 Odetta, along with Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Eubie Blake, received the Duke Ellington Fellowship Award. She hosted the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975 and appeared with Cicely Tyson in the television movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman in 1974. In the 1980s she received the American Eagle Award from the National Music Council and starred in a stage production of Bessie Smith. Odetta participated in multiple projects during the 1990s and appeared with the Boston Pops, on National Public Radio, and on Columbia Broadcasting System’s Sunday Morning.
In 1999 Odetta recorded Blues Everywhere I Go, her first album in 14 years, and followed it in 2001 with Looking for a Home, a tribute to Leadbelly. “Odetta tackles a handful of his classics in her own distinctive style,” wrote Jonathan Widran in All Music Guide, “with moods ranging from melancholy and emotional... to spirited and humorous.” She also continued to protest inequality in the United States. Speaking of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in 2002 she told Jeff Rivers in the Hartford Courant, “I’m living in the place they’re singing about, but the description is not the place I live in.” With over 50 years devoted to folk music, Odetta’s new recordings and concert performances are introducing her to yet another generation. Bessman noted, “If Woody Guthrie is the father of folk music as we know it, Odetta must surely be the mother.”
Sings Ballads and Blues, Tradition, 1956.
At the Gate of Horn Tradition, 1957.
My Eyes Have Seen, Vanguard, 1959.
Odetta & the Blues, Legacy, 1962.
It’s a Mighty World, RCA, 1964.
Odetta Sings Dylan, RCA, 1965.
At Carnegie Hall, Vanguard, 1967.
Odetta Sings the Blues, Riverside, 1968.
Movin’ It On, Rose Quartz, 1987.
Blues Everywhere I Go, M.C., 1999.
Looking for a Home, M.C., 2002.
Women In Emotion, M.C., 2002.
Walters, Neal and Brian Mansfield, Music Hound Folk, Visible Ink, 1998, pp. 603, 604.
Hartford Courant, July 4, 2002, p. D1.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 1, 2002).
BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/(September 1, 2002).
Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2002, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner noted of Livin’ with the Blues, Vanguard, 2000; a National Public Radio interview on February 13, 2000; and the liner notes of Tradition Masters, Tradition, 2002.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
(b. 31 December 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama), singer, noted for her versatility, penetrating voice, and show-manship, who revived many almost forgotten folk songs through dedicated research and relentless practice.
Known almost all her life by her first name only, Odetta was born Odetta Holmes. Her father, Reuben Holmes, worked in a steel mill; her mother, Flora Sanders, worked as a domestic servant. Reuben died soon after his daughter's birth. Upon her mother's remarriage to Zadock Felious, Odetta called herself Odetta Holmes Felious. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1937. Odetta learned to play her grandmother's piano and developed an interest in classical music. By her tenth birthday her exceptional voice was in evidence at the Congregational Church near her home, and at thirteen Odetta began classical training. The range of her voice was amazing, varying from contralto to baritone to basso.
In 1947 Odetta graduated from Belmont High School in Los Angeles and worked as a housekeeper. She attended night classes at Los Angeles City College, from which she earned a degree in classical music and musical comedy. In 1949 she landed a job with the chorus for the road company of the musical Finian's Rainbow. While in San Francisco with the company, she became the resident singer at the Tin Angel nightclub in 1953. A club owner in New York City read of Odetta's voice and hired her for a gig at the Blue Angel. It was there that the singers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte heard her and began helping her with her career.
In the 1950s Odetta performed in motion pictures and became singer in residence at the Turnabout Theater in Los Angeles. During those years she studied folk music and developed her unique manner of blending from one song into the next without breaking. In 1956 her first album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, was released to positive reviews. She was compared favorably to Bessie Smith and Leadbelly, two people she credited with influencing her style. In 1959 Odetta broke into television by appearing with the writer Langston Hughes on the series Lamp unto My Feet. She also recorded songs with Belafonte and performed with the Count Basie Orchestra at New York City's Hunter College, then with Seeger at Yale University. Her ability to sing not only folk music but the blues and opera made her much in demand as a singer, and her acting skills were also sought. On 1 May 1959 Odetta married Dan Gordon and settled in Chicago. They later divorced, and she remarried twice (to Gary Sheed in the late 1960s and to Iversen "Louisiana Red" Minter in 1997). In 1960 she landed the role of Nancy in the film version of William Faulkner's Sanctuary, a role she played with emotive power. Thereafter she took parts in many television series episodes.
The album Odetta Sings Christmas Spirituals was released in 1960, revealing the deeply spiritual aspect of her performances. She said that she assumed different characters for the songs she sang. This theatrical aspect of her performances was hard to capture on records, but Sometimes I Feel Like Crying (1962) and Odetta Sings the Blues (1968) came close. Her singing on these albums ranged from brassy to operatic to scratchy nasal, making the spirit of the songs come alive. Such performances influenced a host of singers, from Bob Dylan to Janis Joplin. Odetta taught herself to play the guitar, accompanying herself by playing by ear; in the 1960s she became almost as noted for her hard-driving, bold guitar playing as for her singing.
During the 1960s Odetta was involved in the civil rights movement. Her albums had already blurred the color line in music, erasing it altogether in Christmas Spirituals, but for all her acclaim from people of all races, she was still an African American in an era of racial revolution. She participated in the protest in Selma, Alabama, and in 1963 was in the historic march and rally in Washington, D.C., where the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Remarkably, just two years later, Birmingham, Alabama, which had seen much racial unrest, honored Odetta with a ceremony and the key to the city.
In the meantime Odetta's albums came out rapidly, each meeting with an eager audience: One Grain of Sand (1963), It's a Mighty World (1964), Odetta Sings of Many Things (1964), Odetta Sings Dylan (1965), Ballads for Americans(1965), Odetta in Japan (1965), Odetta (1967), Best of Odetta (1967), Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1967), and Odetta Sings the Blues (1968). Never again would she make as many recordings in so short a time. In them, her mature style is evident; in Odetta at Carnegie Hall, in particular, her free-flowing approach to her program, in which she could shift to any of the songs in her vast repertoire at any time, is most in evidence. This unpredictable shifting of songs made it hard for bands and other performers to work with her; therefore she usually performed on her own.
After the 1960s Odetta's painstaking scholarship grew more in evidence. She frequented the Library of Congress, digging up old, perhaps forgotten, songs from chain gangs, field workers, cowboys, and many other sources, and practiced them for months at a time before she thought they were ready for performance. In so doing she became not only one of America's most remarkable singers but one of its greatest music historians, bringing to life the words and tunes of the country's past and its working people.
The entry on Odetta in Current Biography 1960 is brief but laden with facts about her early career. Wilfred Mellers, Angels of the Night: Popular Female Singers of Our Time (1986), offers relevant data. Laura C. Jarmon, "Odetta," in Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith (1992), is the fullest article on the singer. Toby Bielawski's interview, "The Wisdom and Music of Odetta," for Radiance magazine (winter 1999), is an excellent resource for Odetta's views of her music.
Kirk H. Beetz