From the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Greg Cahill
By Ian Zack
“Unfortunately, there will always be a place for protest songs, at least until we human beings get our act together,” Odetta, heralded as the unofficial queen of American folk music, told me shortly before her death in 2008. “You can’t stop protesting or stop letting the powers that be know how you feel or give it over to them to stomp on you.”
For five decades, Odetta raised a powerful voice in support of social justice—and even death hasn’t silenced her. Ian Zack (author of Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis) has captured her essence in an authoritative biography of the singer, guitarist, lyricist, actor, civil-rights activist, and cultural icon.
Her greatness can’t be downplayed. In the liner notes to her 1963 album My Eyes Have Seen, fellow singer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte wrote, “There are many singers with fine voices, great range, and superb technique. Few possess [Odetta’s] fine understanding of a song’s meaning that transforms it from a melody into a dramatic experience.”
Odetta’s commitment to protest songs, often filtered through the blues idiom, was unwavering and her interpretive skills dazzling. In his critically acclaimed 2005 film portrait Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, director Martin Scorsese prominently featured a 1960s vintage clip of Odetta singing “Water Boy” as an example of the folk scene’s vibrancy. In that footage, the very earth itself opens up when Odetta raises her powerful baritone.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930, during the repressive Jim Crow era, Odetta Holmes landed in Los Angeles, where at 13 she began operatic training. Eventually, she became versed in gospel, spirituals, blues, and jazz, as well as classical music. In 1944, she began a career in musical theater, but got a professional boost in 1957 with the release of her solo debut, Odetta Sings Ballads & Blues. She was a big woman with a big voice and often appeared in nightclubs accompanying herself on a big National resonator or a large dreadnought.
In the 1960s, she teamed up with guitarist Bruce Langhorne (known for his work with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan) and a bassist. During the folk revival, she ranked among the top tier of artists, along with Baez, Judy Collins, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, to name a few. Dylan has said she was a major influence; he borrowed the hammer-on technique she used on her first album. And she enjoyed a close working relationship with Belafonte—Zack fleshes out their relationship with numerous anecdotes. For example, when CBS TV and Revlon approached Belafonte about hosting a variety television show, a groundbreaking moment for a black artist, Belafonte insisted on bringing Odetta on board.
“Excuse me, Harry, but what is an Odetta?” one of the executives asked. “I said, ‘It is not a what. It’s a human being. It’s a she, it’s a who,’” Belafonte responded.
“And what does she sound like?”
“Paul Robeson. Her voice is enormous. And the depth and range of it is never-ending.”
“Uh, huh,” they said. “And what does she look like?”
“I said, ‘She’s a Nubian queen. She is the mother of history, of all of Africa. Her beauty reigns as supreme.’”
Reviewers loved Odetta—the United Press International heralded her as a star. She would go on to roles on TV, film, and the stage, and performed at such landmark events as 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Zack lingers long in the 1960s and ’70s, when Odetta’s career peaked and intersected with the likes of Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and Josh White. In the process, he takes the reader behind the scenes to experience the life and turbulent times of an uncompromising artist and American icon.
Get stories like this in your inbox
Another Odetta album worth checking out: The Albums Collection: 1954-62.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Please note these are affiliate links, meaning Acoustic Guitar will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! (And, to learn more about how you can support this site, please click here.)