Odetta Holmes, (December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008)
known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter,
and a human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the
Civil Rights Movement". Her musical repertoire consisted largely of
American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in
the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she was
influential musically and ideologically to many of the key figures of
the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis
Staples, and Janis Joplin.
Early life and career Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles,
California, attended Belmont High School, and studied music at Los
Angeles City College while employed as a domestic worker. She had
operatic training from the age of 13. Her mother hoped she would follow
Marian Anderson, but Odetta doubted a large black girl would ever
perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her first professional experience
was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years
with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lanchester; she later joined the national touring company of the musical
Finian's Rainbow in 1949.
While on tour with Finian's Rainbow, Odetta "fell in with an
enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco", and after 1950
concentrated on folksinging.
She made her name by playing around the United States: at the Blue Angel
nightclub (New York City), the hungry i (San Francisco), and Tin Angel
(San Francisco), where she and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry in
1954, for Fantasy Records.
A solo career followed, with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and
At the Gate of Horn (1957). Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's
best-selling folk albums.
In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her "The Queen of American
folk music". In the same year the duo Harry Belafonte and Odetta
made #32 in the UK Singles Chart with the song There's a Hole in My
Bucket. Many Americans remember her performance at the 1963 civil rights
movement's march to Washington where she sang "O Freedom." She
considered her involvement in the Civil Rights movement as being "one of
the privates in a very big army."
Broadening her musical scope, Odetta used band arrangements on several
albums rather than playing alone, and released music of a more "jazz"
style music on albums like Odetta and the Blues (1962) and Odetta
(1967). She gave a remarkable performance in 1968 at the Woody Guthrie
memorial concert and was interviewed by Milton Okun for his compilation
of songs Something to Sing About! (New York: Macmillan Co.)
Odetta also acted in several films during this period, including
Cinerama Holiday (1955), the film of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1961)
and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
Her marriages to Dan Gordon and Gary Shead ended in divorce.
Singer-guitarist Louisiana Red was a
In May 1975 she appeared on public television's Say Brother program,
performing "Give Me Your Hand" in the studio, in addition to speaking
about her spirituality, the music tradition from which she drew, and her
involvement in civil rights struggles
In 1976, Odetta performed in the U.S. Bicentennial opera "Be Glad Then
America" by John LaMontaigne, as the Muse for America; with Donald
Gramm, Richard Lewis and the Penn State University Choir and the
Pittsburgh Symphony. The production was directed by Sarah Caldwell who
was the director of the Opera Company of Boston at the time.
Odetta released only two new albums in the 20-year period from
1977-1997: Movin' It On, in 1987 and a new version of Christmas
Spirituals, produced by Rachel Faro, in 1988.
Beginning in 1998, she re-focused her energies on recording and touring
and her career took on a major resurgence. The new CD To Ella (recorded
live and dedicated to her old friend
upon hearing of her
passing before walking on stage), was released in 1998 on Silverwolf
Records, followed by three new releases on M.C. Records, which cemented
a partnership with pianist/arranger/producer Seth Farber and record
producer Mark Carpentieri, including: Blues Everywhere I Go, a 2000
Grammy Nominated blues/jazz band tribute album to the great lady blues
singers of the 1920s and 1930s; Looking for a Home, a 2002
Award nominated band tribute to Lead Belly; and the 2007 Grammy
Nominated Gonna Let It Shine, a live album of gospel and spiritual songs
supported by Seth Farber and The Holmes Brothers. These new recordings
and an active world touring schedule created the demand for her guest
star appearance on fourteen new albums of other artists (between 1999
and 2006), and the re-release of forty-five old Odetta albums and
On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the
National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta
was honored at the Kennedy Center with the "Visionary Award" along with
a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress
honored her with its "Living Legend Award".
The 2005 documentary film No Direction Home, directed by Martin
Scorsese, highlights her musical influence on Bob Dylan, the subject of
the documentary. The film contains an archive clip of Odetta performing
"Waterboy" on TV in 1959, and we also hear Odetta's songs "Mule Skinner
Blues" and "No More Auction Block for Me".
In 2006, Odetta opened shows for jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and in
2006 she toured the US, Canada, and Europe accompanied by her pianist,
which included being presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the
keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference, and also in a concert in
Riga's historic 1,000 year old Maza Guild Hall. In December, 2006, the
Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their "Lifetime Achievement
Award." In February, 2007, The International Folk Alliance awarded
Odetta as "Traditional Folk Artist of the Year."
On March 24, 2007 a tribute concert to Odetta was presented at the
Rachel Schlesinger Theatre by the World Folk Music Association with live
performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry
Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock,
Josh White, Jr., (Josh
White#Posthumous honors) Peter, Paul and Mary, Oscar Brand, Tom Rush,
Jesse Winchester, Eric Andersen, Wavy Gravy, David Amram, Roger McGuinn,
Robert Sims, Carolyn Hester, Donal Leace, Marie Knight, Side by Side,
and Laura McGhee (from Scotland).
In 2007, her album Gonna Let It Shine was nominated for a Grammy, and
she completed a major Fall Concert Tour in the "Songs of Spirit" show,
which included artists from all over the world. She toured around North
America in late 2006 and early 2007 to support this CD.
On January 21, 2008, Odetta was the Keynote Speaker at San Diego's
Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, followed by concert performances
in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Mill Valley, in addition
to being the sole guest for the evening on PBS-TV's The Tavis Smiley
On May 2 and 3, 2008, Odetta headlined the Oberlin College Folk Fest in
Oberlin, Ohio, where she spoke about her life at the Cat in the Cream
Coffeehouse and gave a concert in Finney Chapel.
Odetta was honored on May 8, 2008 at a historic tribute night,
hosted by Wavy Gravy. Fellow musicians David Amram, Guy Davis, Vincent
Cross, and Christine Lavin performed; filmmakers D. A. Pennebaker and
Chris Hegedus attended the concert, held at Banjo Jim's in the East
In summer 2008, at the age of 77, she launched another North American
tour, with concerts in Albany, New York and other cities, singing
strongly and confidently from a wheelchair. Her set in recent
years included "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)",
Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues", (Something Inside) So
Strong", "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "House of the
She made a special appearance on June 30, 2008 at The Bitter End on
Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. She
opened the show with Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and
finished the first set with a duet with Clancy where they sang Blowin'
in the Wind. Her strong voice was very much in evidence during her last
solo piece, Something Inside So Strong. The finale saw her onstage with
Clancy, Tom Paxton, Shane MacGowan, amongst others.
Her last "big concert," before thousands of people, was in San
Francisco's Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly
Bluegrass Festival. She last performed at Hugh's Room in Toronto on
In November 2008, Odetta's health began to decline and she began
receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She had hoped to
perform at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009
On December 2, 2008, Odetta died from heart disease in New York City.
At her memorial service in February 2009 at Riverside Church in New York
City, participants included Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte,
Geoffrey Holder, Steve Earle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter Yarrow, Tom
Chapin, Josh White, Jr. (son of Josh White), Emory Joseph, Rattlesnake
Annie, the Brooklyn Technical High School Chamber Chorus, and videotaped
tributes from Tavis Smiley and Joan Baez. Odell Maxwell is an
accomplished blues artist whose riffs and runs evoke memories of the
delta. He was born in Florida and grew up listening to the artists who
came to perform at his
father's juke joint. Although steeped in the blues tradition Odell
didn't start to perform on stage
until he was 36. He used a guitar and amp he had purchased at a pawn
shop. Odell's first band was
the Neighborhood Blues Band, composed of musicians culled from the
weekly jams he had on a makeshift
stage in his Orlando FL back yard. His current band is Odell and the
Maxwells and they perform a mix
of Delta blues favorites and his own original compositions. His first
recording was made last year
in the basement of a friend's house. This second recording contains all
original compositions and is
again dedicated to his father Gus Maxwell.