Those of us who know her music are mourning her loss today.
Odetta (Holmes, also Felious, and Gordon)
Born Dec, 31, 1930 -Died Dec 2, 2008
“I’m up here making love to you and it’s no fun if you don’t respond”
Odetta was born in Birmingham, AL on Dec. 31, 1930. Her early years were formed by the Depression in the South; then in Los Angeles, CA. Odetta took piano and voice lessons, and studied Classical Music from the age of 13. At 14 she began to work with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre.
In 1949, at nineteen, she joined the chorus as part of a national touring company presenting the musical: “Finian’s Rainbow” in San Francisco. The show had first opened on Broadway in 1947.
Finian’s Rainbow involved themes of racial bigotry and was first performed at a time when the most of the country was in the stranglehold of racist law and mores. Traveling in a mixed troupe, with the “separate bathrooms” and “back of the bus” attitudes, and the still prevalent cloud threat of lynching threats, was difficult. This appears to be an underreported aspect of show. It may one reason why local choirs were chosen.
She recorded and performed using wide range of musical genres adjusted to the chords of her “Baby”, a wood guitar she obtained at the beginning of her career, and her signature hairstyle; an afro called the “Odetta”. She liked the interaction with audiences and preferred an audience that was participatory.
Odetta was a tireless researcher of music. Often, going to the Library of Congress for data:
She kept alive the legacy of early folk and blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Leadbelly. Odetta has had a significant influence on modern music, providing inspiration for such performers as [Bob Dylan], Janis Joplin and Joan Armatrading.
“They were liberation songs,” she said in a videotaped interview with The New York Times in 2007, for its online feature “The Last Word.” “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.”
“The folk songs were — the anger,” she emphasized.
Odetta was active to her death. In April 2007, she performed at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce Springsteen. Her manager, Doug Yeager, reported that she died of heart disease, but had been hoping to perform for President Elect Obama’s Inauguration in January.
Odetta is listed in countless biographies as a source of inspiration. She is named in innumerable other publications, such as novels, in order to place a sense of mood. Her work epitomized the sense of anger, anguish and longing that marked the struggle for human rights out of the turn of the twentith century. Not enough is written about her. Maya Angelou, is supremely qualified to have done so, in her book of collected biographies. However, more should be forthcoming.
Infoplease does not currently have a biography for her.
Honors and Notations
Degree in classical music and musical comedy from Los Angeles City College
1959 – Sylvania Award for Excellence
1965 – Presented with the key to the city of Birmingham, AL
1965 – Duke Ellington fellowship, Yale University.
1999 – President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities.
2003 – Odetta received a “Living Legend” tribute from the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center Visionary Award.
I Own My Vote, PUMA, The Denver Group, Just Say No Deal