We are very saddened to annouce the passing of the great folk blues legend, Odetta. She was 77 years old. Odetta had recently been hospitalized in New York City for kidney failure, and succumbed to heart failure on Tuesday.
On a personal note, I will remember the first time I met Odetta at the Town Hall Theater in NYC, when I was booking the musical guests for A Prairie Home Companion. As soon as she walked through the door for sound check that day, her commanding presence and energy filled the room. She was a strong, funny, wise and gracious woman.
Here’s Odetta’s obituary sent from her record label – M.C. Records:
Odetta was born in Birmingham Alabama, Dec. 31 1930.
Her father, Reuben Holmes, died when she was young, and in 1937 she and her mother, Flora Sanders, moved to Los Angeles. Three years later, Odetta discovered that she could sing.
She found her own voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music from the African-American and Anglo-American traditions. She earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. Her training in classical music and musical theater was “a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life,” she said.
In 1950, Odetta began singing professionally in a West Coast production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow,” but she found a stronger calling in the bohemian coffeehouses of San Francisco. “We would finish our play, we’d go to the joint, and people would sit around playing guitars and singing songs and it felt like home,” she said.
She began singing in nightclubs, cutting a striking figure with her guitar and her close-cropped hair.
Her voice plunged deep and soared high, and her songs blended the personal and the political, the theatrical and the spiritual. Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” resonated with an audience hearing old songs made new.
Bob Dylan, referring to that recording, said in a 1978 interview, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he heard something “vital and personal,” and added, “I learned all the songs on that record.” It was her first, and the songs were “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Water Boy,” ” ‘Buked and Scorned.”
Her blues and spirituals led directly to her work for the civil rights movement. They were two rivers running together, she said in her interview with The Times. The words and music captured “the fury and frustration that I had growing up.”
Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and performed for President John F. Kennedy. But after King was assassinated in 1968, the wind went out of the sails of the civil rights movement and the songs of protest and resistance that had been the movement’s soundtrack. Odetta’s fame flagged for years thereafter.
In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded Odetta the National Endowment for the Arts
Odetta was married three times: to Don Gordon, to Gary Shead, and, in 1977, to the blues musician Iverson Minter, known professionally as Louisiana Red. The first two marriages ended in divorce; Mr. Minter moved to Germany in 1983 to pursue his performing career.
She was singing and performing well into the 21st century, and her influence stayed strong.
The critic called her “a majestic figure in American music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today.”