Oh, Oh, Odetta!

A celebration today of the influential folk singer Odetta (Odetta Holmes, 1930-2008).

Odetta was one of those performers who seemed to live at the hub, smack dab in the middle of everything, linking generations, races, classes, cultures. Born in Alabama, but raised on the West Coast; operatically trained with vague goals of stepping into Marian Anderson’s footsteps, Odetta found herself more attracted to the People’s musical forms of folk and the blues. Younger than the likes of Leadbelly and Josh White and the country blues generation, she (much like her frequent collaborator Harry Belafonte) was also older than the (mostly white) sixties folk musicians whom she influenced. When I was a kid in the ’70s, Odetta’s records, released mostly from 1954 to 1970, seemed to be in every family’s record collection. Her name was always intriguing to me, a fortuitous mix of sounds reminiscent of left-wing playwright Clifford Odets, and the Ukrainian resort town of Odessa, then part of the Soviet Union, and famous for being the setting of the climax of Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

In the ’40s, as a teenager Odetta had performed puppetry with the Turnabout Theatre with the highly radical Elsa Lanchester. Circa 1950 she became involved in the folk scene in San Francisco, performing at coffeehouses like the hungry i. Starting with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1957) her steady stream of LP records influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin. Her recording of “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” was one of her few hit singles, and she became closely identified with it. (I was introduced to it by my elementary school music teacher circa 1972). She made a splash in the 1959 TV special Tonight with Belafonte, she did The Ed Sullivan Show and dabbled in acting on the TV western Have Gun Will Travel (1961) and the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) with Cicely Tyson. She sang at Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington and was closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement. In the ’70s, she seemed to slow her activity down, although she returned to recording in 1987, and she continued to sing live and appear on television until shortly before her death in 2008 at the relatively young age of 77. Sadly, she had been booked to sing at Obama’s inauguration but passed away (of heart disease) just a few weeks before that came to pass. Her last national appearance was on The Tavis Smiley Show earlier that year.

To find out more about the variety arts, including TV variety like the programs that showcased Odetta, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous