Remembering Odetta, The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement

By special contributor Doug Yeager  •  February 28, 2018

In our age of information overload and 24-hour news cycles, it’s hard to imagine that a single woman with a voice and a guitar could galvanize an entire generation into action. Yet that is the case with Odetta, a legendary singer, songwriter, guitarist, actress and civil rights icon, and an ASCAP member from 1962 until her death in 2008.

In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. called her “The Queen of American Folk Music” and she lived up to that distinction, performing, recording and inspiring new generations of songwriters throughout her life. Many of her songs, such as "Hit or Miss," "This Little Light of Mine," "Glory, Glory" and "Oh Freedom" became folk music classics, covered by countless artists, sung at civil rights gatherings over the world and appearing in movies, television series and commercials.

Odetta was just inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. At the induction, the 2018 Grammy nominated blues artist Guy Davis spoke of his life-long friendship with her and performed two songs in her honor. His performance was followed by words about Odetta from Odetta's daughter Michelle Esrick, her son Boots Jaffee, her niece Jan Ford, and by her longtime manager Doug Yeager. Heartfelt video tributes were also presented by Congressman John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson.

The following is a heartfelt remembrance of Odetta and her enduring impact by her manager Doug Yeager.

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Odetta was born in the ghetto of Birmingham, Alabama in 1930, at a time when it was oppressive and dangerous for an African-American family living in Jim Crow South. She experienced her first racial horrors in 1937, when after she boarded the Birmingham train to move to Los Angeles with her family, the conductor angrily yelled at her and the family, called them racial names, and forcibly pushed them to the back train cars for “Coloreds Only.”

In Los Angeles in 1944, while studying to be an opera singer, Odetta was asked to join the famed Turnabout Theater company, where she performed in many plays and musical revues for the next five years alongside Elsa Lancaster. By 1949, when opera companies in American would still not permit African American singers on their stage, Odetta joined the national road company of the Broadway musical theater show Finian's Rainbow. During the show's four-month run in San Francisco, Odetta learned to play the guitar and began singing southern plantation work songs and chain gang songs at the city's coffeehouses. By 1953, she was a headliner at prominent clubs on the West Coast, Chicago and New York and had recorded her first album Live at the Tin Angel. By 1955, Odetta began appearing as a singer and a dramatic actress on film and television, and by 1959, she was a headliner at Carnegie Hall and had toured the world's greatest stages. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin have acknowledged Odetta as their first major inspiration and influence. Martin Luther King, Jr. labeled Odetta the Queen of American Folk Music. Rosa Parks, when asked by her biographer Douglas Brinkley what songs she listened to during the civil rights movement, she responded, "All the songs Odetta sings."

In 1963, Odetta sang for the masses on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the historic March on Washington. That same year, she appeared with President Kennedy on the civil rights television special, Dinner with the President. And in 1965, Odetta returned to Alabama to sing for the brave souls that were marching from Selma to Montgomery (in the 2014 film SELMA, Odetta's voice is heard singing to the marchers). In 1970, Odetta returned again to Alabama to record her album ODETTA Sings at the Muscle Shoals recording studio. Some years later, CBS Morning Show’s Dr. Billy Taylor accompanied Odetta on her first trip back to Birmingham in 50 years, as she gave a master class, received a Doctorate from the university, and performed a concert at Birmingham's Civil Rights Museum.

In 1999, Odetta was honored at the White House by President Bill Clinton with the National Medal of Arts and Humanities. As President Clinton presented her with the medal he noted, "She is the reigning queen of American folk music, reminding us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world.“

Also in 1999, Odetta was nominated for both a Grammy Award and a WC Handy Award for her album Blues Everywhere I Go. In the liner notes of that album, Maya Angelou wrote, "If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize the time. One of my great blessings is to have known her for 50 years, to have been enriched by hearing that voice, to have been informed by knowing that soul. This great artist sings the drama, and yes, the comedy of this human journey. The stations we’ve arrived at tardily and the destinations we have missed entirely. Her mouth was full of the glory of our aspirations. Thank you, Odetta, for continuing to define and enlighten our load."

In 2001, Odetta released the album Looking for a Home, a Tribute to Lead Belly. Noted author and biographer Robert Gordon wrote the liner notes, and Pete Seeger added the words, "I've been waiting for this album for 50 years! The first time I heard Odetta sing she sang "Take This Hammer" and I went and told her how I wish Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her. And now what a great CD full of songs. Hooray!" Later in 2001, two days after the 9/11 tragedy, David Letterman asked Odetta to become the first artist to perform on his show upon its return to the airwaves, as a healing to America. Backed by the Boys Choir of Harlem, she performed "This Little Light of Mine, "We Shall Overcome" and "Amazing Grace."

In 2003, the Library of Congress honored Odetta with their "Living Legends Award." Odetta's live album of Christmas spirituals, Gonna Let It Shine, was a 2007 Grammy nominee, and her protege Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagan wrote the liner notes.

After breaking her hip and plagued with heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis, Odetta still managed to tour the world in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank in her final two years. Her last television appearance in 2008 was on the Tavis Smiley Show, and her last concert performance was outdoors in San Francisco before an audience of 125,000, while a host of stars sat offstage breathing in their last master class from their mentor. Two weeks later she would no longer be with us.

Odetta's heart finally gave out on December 8, 2008. The headline on the front page obituary in The New York Times read, Odetta, Voice of the Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77.