Odetta (1930—)

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Odetta (1930—)

Influential American folk singer. Born Odetta Holmes on December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama; daughter of Reuben Holmes and Flora (Sanders) Holmes; graduated from Los Angeles City College; married Don Gordon, in 1959 (divorced); married Iversen Minter, in 1977; no children.

The career of African-American folk singer and musician Odetta has spanned five decades and won her international fame. Born in 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama, she grew up in Los Angeles, California, with her mother Flora Sanders Holmes and her stepfather Zadock Felious. The family listened to the radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays because her mother loved opera, while her stepfather, who preferred popular music, frequently took her to hear black bands; they also enjoyed listening to the Grand Old Opry. Odetta sang and played piano from her earliest years, and when she was 13 her mother arranged for her to receive private lessons in classical voice. By the time she graduated from high school in 1947 she had decided to pursue a singing career. Her first professional work was in the chorus of the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow in Los Angeles, when she was 19. She continued to work in summer musicals while completing a degree in music at Los Angeles City College and working as a housekeeper.

Odetta had initially been introduced to folk music by fellow chorus members in Finian's Rainbow. Drawn to the genre's political and social reform messages and its celebration of the working class, as well as to its roots in African culture, she taught herself how to play the guitar and began singing at parties and fund raisers. In 1952, she started to perform folk music at clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, including the latter city's Hungry i, and by the following year was booked for the first time at New York City's famous Blue Angel nightclub. She returned to New York City frequently throughout the decade, becoming a leader in the rebirth of folk music in Greenwich Village. Her early audiences responded to Odetta's powerful, soulful voice and emotionally charged music. Through the 1950s, her repertoire expanded into a number of genres, including spirituals, blues, jazz, and social protest songs. In 1952, she met folk singers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, who both took an interest in furthering her career. With their help, Odetta released her first album, The Tin Angel, in 1954. Other records followed on the RCA, Riverside, and Tradition labels. She also acted in theater productions in the 1950s, as well as in several movies, including 1954's The Last Time I Saw Paris, with Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson.

The decade of the 1960s was Odetta's most productive. As the "flower children" blossomed, she performed at folk festivals and in solo concerts across the United States, in addition to releasing 16 albums that were played throughout the nation. As her fame increased, Odetta came to influence the musical development of many prominent folk and rock musicians, including Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin . She usually performed solo, accompanied only by her guitar, because she wanted the freedom to choose her material according to the responses of her audience rather than having to stick to a prearranged set.

The popularity of folk music as a whole decreased in the 1970s, although Odetta remained in demand by major folk festival promoters. She performed in England and toured in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. She also continued to act on occasion, appearing in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" in 1974 and on other television shows. While Odetta released albums through the mid-1980s, the emergence of new musical genres and a trend away from acoustical music cost her much of her former popularity. She recorded no new albums between 1985 and 1999, although she continued to perform occasionally. Then, at age 69, Odetta began a comeback on the folk and blues music scene with a new studio album, Blues Everywhere I Go, on the Vanguard label. The record, which included several Bessie Smith songs as well as what she happily called the "devilish" "You Gotta Know How," was nominated for a Grammy Award and a pair of W.C. Handy Awards. Along with a compilation of earlier songs, Odetta: Best of the Vanguard Years, also released in 1999, the album and her subsequent tour both introduced her music to younger audiences and renewed interest in her older work. That September, President Bill Clinton awarded Odetta the National Endowment for the Arts' Medal, in recognition of her central role in the folk-music revival and of her enormous impact on the development of several generations of musicians.


Greenburg, Mark. "Power and Beauty: The Legend of Odetta," in Sing Out! Vol. 36, no. 2, Aug.–Sept.–Oct. 1991, pp. 2–8.

"Odetta Kicks Back" in The Boston Globe. March 17, 2000, pp. C15–C16.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Book II. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Laura York , Riverside, California