by carl wilson

Odetta: Another One Done Gone

The original one-named diva, known as Odetta Holmes when she was born in Birmingham in 1930 and later by her married name as Odetta Gordon but most of her life simply as Odetta, died yesterday of heart failure in New York, after a couple of weeks in hospital and a couple of years of failing health. I missed her last time she came through Toronto, but saw her at Hugh's Room a couple of years ago, for the first time, and feel fortunate to have breathed the same air as those incredible lungs for a couple of hours as she knocked out her classic covers of Leadbelly and other folk, blues and gospel staples.

But Odetta, truth be told, wasn't exactly a "folk singer" in the sense people in her heyday usually meant it - although she was among the first, alongside the Weavers and Harry Belafonte, to usher in the folk-revival boom in the mid-1950s (and all the McCarthy-era paranoia and struggle that accompanied it). Though born in Alabama she was raised in Los Angeles and trained in opera singing as a teenager and then entered musical theatre. What she did with folk music was, much like Paul Robeson before her, to blend it with the techniques of art music and thereby make an implied argument for its artistic worthiness in a time when the divide between high and low culture was still intense. With a voice that was quite the opposite of an acquired taste, more like a thunderbolt that rivets you to the earth, and an undeniably fine technical command, Odetta didn't require you to listen through scratchy transcriptions and gurgly adenoidal hillbilly vocals. Odetta identified herself more as a folk curator and music historian, taking the old songs and putting them in a clarifying frame.

So for a middle-class kid like Robert Zimmerman, who was mainly interested in rock'n'roll at the time, hearing Odetta in a record shop could be a gateway into the entire folk tradition, and he later credited her as being the one who first inspired him to unplug and pick up an acoustic guitar - followed of course by his discovery of Woody Guthrie and everything else that made him Bob Dylan, folk-music god, for a few years, before he decided to plug back in again.

Coincidentally, Odetta was a gateway drug for me too - the gateway, in fact, to Bob Dylan. I was about 11 or 12 and hanging around my grandparents' house at their farm in Tweed, Ont., and killing some time by going through their musty old records, which consisted mainly of country and Irish music, some Tommy Hunter here, some Irish Rovers there. The falling-apart copy of 1965's Odetta Sings Dylan must have been left there by one of my mom's siblings years before, but just the surprise of my grandparents owning any records by black people was enough to intrigue me. I'd heard a little Dylan but was, I think, a bit put off by the voice. But when I heard this woman who sounded like I hadn't realized any black woman could sound (in my disco-era racially tinged ignorance), making what seemed like epic oratory out of Masters of War, The Times They Are A-Changin' and even Mr. Tambourine Man (frankly an interpretation that I now find too heavy handed for the song), I was arrested. Suddenly the whole phenomenon of early-sixties protest music seemed fascinating and Dylan as a wordsmith electrifying. When we got back to Brantford, I got some Phil Ochs records and Dylan's greatest hits out of the library, and soon bought my first Dylan record (I forget if it was Another Side or Bringin' It All Back Home) - a pretty significant development in a collection till then dominated (with pubescent randomness) by the three B's: the Beatles, Bach and Billy Joel.

A few years later, my friend Sean reintroduced me to Odetta via a mixtape made from his dad's Smithsonian Folkways collection - stunning songs steeped in the history of slavery and oppression such as the above (Water Boy), God's A-Gonna Cut 'Em Down, John Henry and others from the ballad tradition, including my single favourite cut of hers, the old English song John Riley, a "recognition scene" ballad involving long-lost love. Those tapes are a cherished part of the history of my friendship with Sean - the longest, most consistent in my life - today.

Earlier this year I read at the Happy Ending Reading Series in New York, where the rule is that you not only read but must do something you've never done in public. I chose singing a capella, and decided that since I was talking in the book about music that's meant to make you cry, I should sing a song that often makes me break down - that is, John Riley. For comfort, and to solve the a-capella problem of what to do with your arms while you sing, I asked two members of the audience to come up and hold my hands. It wasn't exactly singing O Freedom at the 1963 March on Washington, as Odetta once did, but it was a moment that wouldn't have been the same without her inspiration.

So thank you, Queen Odetta, and rest in peace - the joyful, angry and proud sound of your soul never, I hope, to be forgotten.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 03 at 4:06 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



Lovely tribute to Odetta, and to Sean.

Posted by Lisa on December 3, 2008 8:37 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson