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Folk Diva

The Wisdom and Music of ODETTA

By Toby Bielawski

From Radiance Winter 1999

OdettaSome sounds seem to reach down inside the listener and slip strong fingers around the base of her spine. They may soothe her, or they may grab her and give her a shake. The kind of musical expression I’m talking about is not simply heard with the ears but is also felt with the soul. Perhaps a particular artist, concert, or recording has made you feel this way. Or maybe not: some people have never had this experience with music. But one thing’s for sure: anyone who has attended a performance by Odetta knows what I’m talking about. Whether you’ve seen her at Carnegie Hall, at a huge outdoor folk festival, or at a smaller local club, you’ve felt the majesty and power of this crucial figure in American music.

Aficionados of traditional music and political activists who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s know that Odetta has achieved legendary status as a performer. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan credit Odetta as a major influence, and folk rock artists like Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman have been inspired by the depth and richness of Odetta’s voice. Beyond the voice is Odetta herself: an African-American woman of incredible musical talent who crossed the barriers between "white" and "Negro" traditional music at a time when racial boundaries were fiercely guarded. Today, she continues to sing powerfully of how class and race both unite and divide us. On stage, and off, Odetta’s impressive physical size is hard to separate from the size of her spirit.

The remarkable presence of this woman, called "the queen of American folksingers" on the jacket of her first album (Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, recorded in 1956, when she was only twenty-five), was immediately connected with her size: "When one first sees Odetta, her size and height give rise to the uneasy feeling that she is a cut above the rest of us" the liner notes caution. A white male writing in 1956 might feel uneasy with an African-American woman whose voice could "unleash a force that is startling"—particularly when the force unleashed was singing not only familiar folk ballads like "Greensleeves," but also the bitter blues of oppression and the haunting black work song of the penitentiary. Odetta’s trademarks have been her "commanding presence" and her "large and significant voice that can swell with majesty." She remains in full possession of these qualities now, as she approaches her fiftieth year of performing.

This past spring, I went to hear Odetta perform at The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, a longstanding venue for traditional music in the San Francisco Bay Area. A hush fell over the audience as Odetta took the stage. A whispered "She’s beautiful!" was my companion’s instant reaction—the only sound I heard as Odetta seated herself, took her guitar into her lap, and looked calmly out over the sold-out crowd assembled there. I had come expecting the old songs that I grew up hearing on my parents’ scratched records and that I had struggled to emulate on my half-size guitar when I was small. Suddenly, I had the feeling that we had all come not just to hear music, but to share a spiritual experience. As Odetta began her performance, leading us together through the familiar African spiritual "Kumbaya," a transformation took place: for over an hour that evening—which was, fittingly, a Sunday—the coffeehouse became a house of soul healing, a church of song for all denominations.

"People come to me and thank me for healing. Whatever it is they receivedOdetta from the music, whatever it is they took from the music, healed them," Odetta acknowledges as, a few days later, I sit down with her on the sunny back deck of a friend’s Oakland home. But, she adds with quiet modesty, "I can’t put claim to it. They did it themselves." The healing power of the music affects not just the listeners, but the singer, too: "There have been times that I have had the flu or a cold, have been just sick as a dog, and would do a concert, and on the way back to the hotel had to remember that I had been sick. The music heals."

In some cases, the music brings what is inside to the surface. "Now, Sunday," Odetta says, referring to the concert I’d attended, "I was really cranky. I did the first show, and I was discombobulated, I was unfocused," she confesses, to my surprise. Indeed, anyone in the audience that evening would’ve been astonished to hear that the singer was in anything but top form. "After I did that first show, I felt much better and by the time I did the second show, I realized I’d been sick." It is hard to imagine this vibrant, vital woman with something as mundane as a cold. I glance down and notice the crumpled Kleenex in her hand, the only evidence of infirmity. She lets me in on her more worldly methods of healing: extra vitamin C and echinacea, which she always carries with her when she ventures out for work or travel away from her home in Manhattan. "There’s nothing worse than being on the road and you’re supposed to be singing, and here you are with a cold. The cold will have to wait: I’m busy!"

Cold or no cold, how does Odetta walk on stage and electrify her audiences? In part, it is the intense connection she makes with them. The first thing Odetta did on Sunday was to ask her audience to focus with her for a moment, and then join together in singing "Kumbaya," a spiritual whose Swahili title translates as "Come By Here." A gentle call for the Lord’s presence, the song functioned as a unifying force, conjuring up the spiritual energy that fueled Odetta’s performance.

"Even if all of us live right next door to each other, we come from different places. So-and-so burned the toast this morning, the kids were slow in getting ready: your focus has been taken away into doing other things. And I, too, have come from another—let’s call it life. So then we get together in one room to do something together, and we all focus on this one thing—the music—and from there, we can go anywhere."

This joining together of the audience is only "the final stroke" of how the singer focuses herself. She begins to prepare hours before a performance, with preparations that range from reciting mantras to applying makeup. "I work on focusing beginning in the afternoon, with my prayers and mantras, and putting on the face, and just putting on the blinders, so that by the time I get on the stage, I’m ready to go. I’m not thinking about it, I’m just ready to jump right in."

Clearly, spirituality is central for Odetta. She was raised in a Baptist family. However, when Odetta was a child, almost losing her sister caused the family to switch from a Baptist to a Congregational church. "It was in the wartime, and there was a crush of people; we were on the streetcar, and it panicked me, the fear of losing her, losing her hand," she recounts. "So we started going to a Congregational church that was near our house, that we could walk to." The traumatic experience proved fortunate in the end, because the minister at the new church was "one of the greatest teachers" Odetta ever had, providing his young charges with a diverse education. He took them on tours of synagogues and mosques, and delivered sermons that, she exclaims, "are still affecting and influencing me today!"

Despite this influential religious experience, organized religion does not sit well with Odetta. "I do not call myself religious. I am suspicious of those who are the keepers of religion, and I am suspicious if someone says, ‘God told me to tell you....’ That means they’re trying to control me. And since we’re both children of God, why does He have your number and not mine? How come He just don’t call me up?" Her deep rolls of laughter burst forth. "Or She, thank you very much! But I’m highly spiritual. Religious, no. Spiritual, yes. And I think I couldn’t help but be, because of the magic and the healing that I’ve experienced in the music."

The healing power of music has led Odetta to a place of self-understanding and self-acceptance that she acknow- ledges is especially important for large women. "I know that we have to work especially hard at accepting ourselves as we are. One thing I’ve noticed, and it’s just speculation, is that especially among black women who work in stressed areas, it’s almost as if the fat is a cushion against all those negative vibes that we have to deal with. I do know that I myself didn’t eat that much, yet I was large—and that was my protection. I guess that we are large for many different reasons, and talking into it is probably very good and very healthy for us—not to change us, but to get to know ourselves. Maybe we’re fortunate in that we have what is often thought of as a handicap, and as a result of it, we are able to take the opportunity to talk about our closest feelings: Do I feel right about this, do I feel good being big? Some do, and that’s wonderful. Some don’t, and then, the question is, why not?"

Odetta’s next words ring out with her unique combination of wisdom, soul, and humor: "I think that whatever our goal, whatever it is that we do, we need to give our complete selves to it. People will witness you doing your stuff, whatever size you are."  

I first heard Odetta on a scratchy LP strewn among the old 78s and the occasional Bob Dylan or Beatles album in my parents’ collection. As a child, I was enthralled by Odetta’s music, and, as I listened, would gaze at the cover: a photo of a pretty, powerful-looking young woman who was staring sternly down at her guitar, as if commanding it to do her bidding. Out of the hi-fi speakers, drowning out the pops and scratches, came that driving guitar strum, like a locomotive picking up steam. And over that, the train-wail of Odetta’s voice as a song left the station and gained speed. Of course, not all of the songs on that album took their power from a racing speed: some were soft spirituals, or even softer lullabies; some vocals were accompanied only by simple hand claps, or by nothing at all.

Later, in my teen years, I had a chance to see Odetta perform. (More than a chance, actually: it was mandatory—she came to my high school and played at a schoolwide assembly.) While I sat with my friends, enraptured, an amazing, horrifying thing happened. The horrifying part was that somewhere to my left, a student stood up and fired a baseball, fast-pitch, at the stage, narrowly missing Odetta. An astonished whisper passed through the audience. The amazing part was that the spell was not broken: Odetta continued to play, unfazed by the missile. That image of her on the old album cover, with her commanding presence, came flooding back to me as I sat, quietly astounded, realizing that the strength of the song was undamaged by the interruption, its integrity complete.

But seeing her perform at an intimate coffeehouse, sans baseball, was even better. When Odetta launches into her unique combination of songs from both white and black musical traditions, her voice and guitar are intensely dynamic, often speeding up and then suddenly slowing down, moving from soaring high tones and then dipping into a deep, gritty scrape.

In "Another Man Done Gone," Odetta’s voice moans alone: "Another man done gone from the county farm, another man done gone." The rhythms of digging, hammering, and pounding are echoed in the thudding hand claps, and the repetition of hard labor is reflected in her sorrowful repetition of the lyrics: "I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know his name. / He had a long chain on, he had a long chain on. / They killed another man, they killed another man." This song, like many she sings, is blended with others into a medley. She doesn’t switch songs without pausing, but finesses an intricate interweaving of tunes, in which parts of the first and second songs reappear during the third, as if the songs are playing tug-of-war inside of the singer.

Odetta explains her need to have a deep personal connection to each song she sings, and that the complex medleys she creates during her performances are spontaneous, "born on stage." She has the freedom to roam at will through her extensive repertoire because, as she tells me, "I’m fortunate in that I can sing whatever I want: it’s not like I have this gigantic hit that I have to sing every night!" Perhaps, but every Odetta song is a "hit" with her audience.

Odetta’s voice had an impact early on. "As I was growing up, they discovered I had a voice, in school. I guess I was about eleven. So my mother was going to have me take voice lessons. A teacher told her to wait until I was thirteen, because of the body’s changes. So at thirteen I became serious, and she scraped pennies together to give me voice lessons." When Odetta’s mother could no longer afford the lessons, she persuaded the men who ran the theater where she worked to help out. "She told the guys about me, and they had me sing for them—and then they sponsored my lessons." After high school, the young singer worked to pay for her own lessons. All this training was in classical music, seemingly a far cry from the folk songs with which she eventually made her name. "I was interested in oratorios and art songs and lieder," she recalls. In fact, Odetta describes herself as something of a classical snob: "There was a time when if it wasn’t classical, I wasn’t interested." She enrolled at Los Angeles City College, where she studied classical music and voice.

But there was always the color line to be confronted. "When I was growing up, there was no way that a black person was going to be in the opera. I knew that my hero, Marian Anderson, well, not until she was retired did they even invite her to participate in the Metropolitan Opera. We don’t want it that way, but that’s the way it is. We may as well face the fact that every last one of us in this country has racism in our bones, in the marrow of our bones. And then we can work on getting past it."

Racism may have made a career in classical music unlikely, but another music appeared to help with the "getting past it": the songs of the prison, the work farm, and the chain gang. Many people in the United States are unaware of the brutal convict-lease system that operated in the South after the Civil War. Blacks were arrested in great numbers, and prisoners were hired out for labor under conditions often described as more severe than slavery. The music that rose out of this grim era (from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century) is haunting and powerful.

It is strange to sit with Odetta on a sunny deck, on the sort of day when you can hear bees and small planes buzzing lazily in the air, and discuss the anger of injustice, the bitter pain embodied in these songs. But we do discuss them, because these are the songs that started her on the journey into folk music. It was, as she describes it, a journey out of anger. "Some of the songs served me by taking care of the frustration that I felt, the hate I felt for myself and everybody else, just being unhappy and unsatisfied. As I sang the prison work songs, I got the anger and the fury attended to in me. Even if I’d known what it was that I was feeling and where that was coming from, I couldn’t have said it to people. In those days [the 1950s], we weren’t ‘talking into’ things," Odetta recalls, using her favorite expression for what today we might call processing. As she describes tapping into her fury during those early performances, it’s clear that her audiences were experiencing the emotions along with her. "It’s amazing how powerful hate is. It has its own energy. There were times people would stand up at the end of a song, applauding and screaming, just to shut some of that negative stuff off."

Interestingly, as Odetta herself moved out of hatred and anger, she also moved away from the songs of oppression. Or, as she puts it, they moved away from her: "Now, ‘John Henry’ was the first song that got up and walked out of my door," she recalls, referring to the sung story of the "steel-driving" black hero. "You see, this music was healing me all the time, and I was feeling better with myself, just getting more balanced, I think."

These days, other forms of music express the anger of oppression. I ask Odetta about rap. "First of all, I have this feeling that I should be listening to rap, and I’ve had it on, and I can’t even understand what is being said. Of course, I know people do hear the words, and it means a lot to people, and it is valid because it’s coming out of people. But that drum thing is enough to kill me—over and over and over again, that relentless beating at me. I have a society that does that to me, okay? So I don’t want that represented in the music. But I’ve thought that I really should find a way to hear what is being said because the rappers are coming out of the community that is most terrorized by the system. And we fill up the prisons with them," her voice begins to rise, "so that they can work in there for next to nothing, and we’ve got slavery again. A few months ago, in Georgia or Alabama, they were thinking of putting chains on the prisoners again. Chain gangs!" As her eyes flash with anger, I think back to her early audiences, jumping to their feet and screaming to dispel the intensity of her singing.

Odetta’s earliest recordings have recently been reissued on CD (Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, recorded in 1956, and Odetta at the Gate of Horn, recorded in 1957, were released on CD in 1996 and 1997, respectively, on the Tradition Records label). I ask about her reaction to the reissues. "I had to force myself to sit down and listen. It’s difficult for me to listen to what’s been done. And I found myself almost like at a racetrack, when you’re pulling the horse in, the horse you’ve bet on: ‘You can do it!’ I never would have listened to the records had it not been an assignment," she laughs, "but I’m very glad they’re out again!"

We are all lucky to have access to these landmark albums again; they are true classics. The first album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, contains a thrilling mix of spirituals (some a cappella, like the threatening "God’s Gonna Cut You Down," blues and sea chanteys like the rollicking "Santy Anno," and prison songs ("Been in the Pen" and the powerful "Another Man Done Gone"). On Odetta at the Gate of Horn, the singer is accompanied by Bill Lee (the father of filmmaker Spike Lee) on bass, lending a fuller sound to such familiar songs as "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Greensleeves," and "Midnight Special." Lesser known but nonetheless outstanding songs include the delightful Caribbean-tinged "Maybe She Go." A special treat is the inclusion of Odetta’s original liner notes to the album, in which she provides a personal comment on each song.

Odetta’s recent projects include the musical score for Spirit North, a play by Lesley Lee. She is now planning to record a children’s album. "I’ve always been interested in doing a children’s record, but I didn’t want that syrupy, sweet stuff." Instead, she plans to adapt songs, like those of Jimmy Driftwood, an Ozark songwriter and folk historian. "He was a history teacher, and he would write songs to keep his students interested in the lessons." Odetta breaks into the first verse of a Driftwood classic, "The Battle of New Orleans."

Even as the historical continues to hold an important place in Odetta’s work, the much-praised power and majesty of Odetta’s music is based on its personal significance. "The music is so much more than you can put on a page: it’s the experience you’ve had with each other, the falling outs, the silly stuff, the being together. That is what makes the music." And, perhaps above all, there is the spiritual significance to which Odetta attributes her success. "Always around the voice, there have been angels and helpers—always. I think my assignment for this life is to learn whatever it is I’m going to learn through music." �

TOBY BIELAWSKI is a writer and community college writing teacher living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She plays rhythm guitar for 3 Hour Tour, an all-female rock band based in San Francisco.



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