Odetta Holmes Biography

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Odetta Early Life.

Legendary folk singer Odetta Holmes Felious Gordon, who performed under the name Odetta, was born December 31, 1930, in the depths of the Depression. She began her training in classical music at the age of thirteen. Five years later she joined the touring company of “Finian’s Rainbow,” which included bluesman Sonny Terry, and her musical career took a different direction. She took up the guitar and began appearing at San Francisco-area folk clubs, where her powerful voice and unique guitar style brought her national attention. Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte recognized her extraordinary talent, and were instrumental in furthering her career as she began to record and tour nationally. Early in her career, Odetta discovered the Archive of Folk-Song at the Library of Congress and spent many hours mining its riches. Until her death, Odetta continued to credit the archive with providing the foundation for the breadth and depth of her repertoire, which included worksongs, blues, jazz, spirituals, and Appalachian and English folksongs. In the 1960s, Odetta became a major figure in the folk revival scene and a powerful voice for the civil rights movement. At the same time that she was appearing at major concert venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall, she found the time to participate in the march on Selma, Alabama, and the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin have credited Odetta’s musical influence, and several of her recordings from this era became folk classics and inspired an entire generation. On Nov. 13, 2003, Odetta was presented with the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. She passed away on December 2, 2008 at the age of 77.

Odetta Biography and Profile:

Odetta (Odetta Holmes Felious Gordon), an African-American legendary folk and blues singer, actress, guitarist, lyricist, and a civil and human rights activist, was born Odetta Holmes, December 31, 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama, to Ruben Holmes, a steel-mill worker, who died when she was young, and Flora, a maid. During the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, at about age six, Odetta moved to Los Angeles with her mother and younger sister.

“They were liberation songs,” Odetta said. “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.”

Odetta assumed her stepfather’s surname Zadock Felious, when her mother remarried. Her family moved to Los Angeles, and she began performing at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood as a teenager. Shortly afterward the girl discovered a budding love for music and singing. Like many black singers of her generation, Odetta’s musical talent was initially nurtured in church.

“A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe I should study,” Odetta recalled. “But I myself didn’t have anything to measure it by.”

At thirteen she started professional voice lessons, which were briefly interrupted when her mother could no longer afford them. Odetta channeled her anger and despair into some of the most powerful folk music the world has ever heard. Through her lyrics and iconic persona, Odetta made lasting political, social, and cultural change.

Odetta used her fame to bring attention to the civil rights movement, working alongside Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, and other artists. Her opera-trained voice echoed at the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march, and she arranged a tour throughout the deeply segregated South. A special concern is raising money to support and call attention to, the Folk Music Archives at the Library of Congress. Her “Freedom Trilogy” songs became rallying cries for protesters everywhere. She made her first professional appearance as a folk singer at San Francisco’s “Hungry i” in 1950.

She has released numerous recordings, appeared in concert around the world, in films, and on television with Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Dick Cavett, Della Reese, Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop and David Frost. A leader of the 1960s folk revival, Odetta is one of the most important singers of the last hundred years. Her music has influenced a huge number of artists over many decades, including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Kinks, Jewel, and, more recently, Rhiannon Giddens and Miley Cyrus.

She is the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. and the Duke Ellington Fellowship Award from Yale University. She has served as Artistinresidence at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.

Odetta Education:

After leaving Belmont High School Odetta worked as a housekeeper while taking night classes in music at Los Angeles City College. Her training in classical music and musical theater was “a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life,” she said. “The folk songs were the anger,” she emphasized. “School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music.” At this stage, she was contemplating a career as a classical singer, and it was not until she landed a job in the chorus of Finian’s Rainbow in 1949 that she discovered folk. “I knew I was home,” she said. Eventually, Odetta earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College.

Odetta Album: It’s a Mighty World (RCA Victor, 1964):

During her fifty-year career as an American folk icon, Odetta Holmes was a singer, guitarist, actress and activist who inspired generations of folk, blues and rock musicians. Exuding intelligence, outrage and hope, the 1964 album It’s a Mighty World showcases Odetta as a folk original. Fans of Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and (most notably) Bob Dylan may be shocked to hear guitar and vocal arrangements usually credited to those musicians on this record in their original form.

In context of her struggles as an African-American woman in a brutally oppressed time, Odetta believed in free will. The might of her truth and persistence, particularly on this album, is undeniable. On it, Odetta leads the listener through powerful melodic histories of the oppressed, including old spirituals, prison camp and slavery songs, transforming them into anthems of liberation. Odetta said she read in her elementary school books that slaves were “happy and singing,” so when she discovered folk music, her intention was to rewrite false and oppressive history.

The words of folk music helped to voice her and others’ hatred of oppression, and she once said: “It got to a point that doing the music actually healed me.” Many of what she called her “interpretations” (Odetta did not often compose) became part of the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to name Odetta the “Queen of American folk music.” Yet another mark of Odetta’s genius is that most of these recordings still feel relevant, thanks to her unique guitar work and her vast vocal range, which soars through a variety of styles from field calls to operatic to bluesy.

Odetta Songs:

Her first album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, was released in 1956 and included songs such as Muleskinner Blues and Jack O’ Diamonds. The next year she produced At the Gate of Horn (1957), which featured the popular spiritual He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and a rendering of Greensleeves. She was now considered one of the leading folk singers of her generation, one critic describing her as “the most glorious new voice in American folk music”.

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 September 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.

The Artists Odetta Influenced:

Odetta singing voice was notable both for its power and its authenticity. She was meticulous in her attempts to re-create the genuine feeling of folk songs, on one occasion reputedly smashing rocks with a sledge hammer better to appreciate the emotions of a convict in a chain-gang.

The list of artists she influenced was long, and among them were Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Joan Armatrading. Indeed, in 1978 Dylan claimed that it was Odetta who had “turned me on to folk singing”. As a teenager he had heard one of her early albums in a record shop: “Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.” The admiration was mutual: in 1965 Odetta released an album called Odetta Sings Dylan, which featured Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right; Masters of War; and The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Odetta Movie Career:

Odetta also took occasional parts as an actress, notably in the film version of William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary (1961), directed by Tony Richardson.

Odetta Awards:

During the 1960s Odetta released a string of albums, and in 1963 she was nominated for a Grammy for best folk recording for Odetta Sings Folk Songs. She was to receive further nominations in 1999 (for Blues Everywhere I Go), and in 2005 for her album, Gonna Let It Shine. In 1999, Odetta was honored at the White House by President Bill Clinton with the National Medal of Arts and Humanities. The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year. 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.”

Odetta Husband:

She was three times married to Dan Gordon, Gary Shead and Iversen “Louisiana Red” Minter. Odetta is survived by a daughter, Michelle Esrick, and a son, Boots Jaffre.

Odetta Cause of Death:

Despite having to use a wheelchair due to ill health, in the last two years she had given 60 concerts. She performed at San Francisco’s Golden State Park, as part of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, on October 4, and had hoped to sing at the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama. Odetta, the singer whose resonant voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died 2 December 2008 in Manhattan. She was 77.

The cause was heart disease, her manager, Doug Yeager, said. Odetta, who lived in Upper Manhattan, had been admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital three weeks ago with a number of ailments, including kidney trouble, Mr. Yeager said. In her last days, he said, she had been hoping to sing at the presidential inauguration for Barack Obama.

In a career of almost 60 years, Odetta sang at coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall. She became one of the best-known folk-music artists of the 1950s and 1960s. Her recordings of blues and ballads on dozens of albums influenced Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin and many others. Odetta’s voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white images of the freedom marchers who walked the roads of Alabama and Mississippi and the boulevards of Washington to end racial discrimination.

Odetta Legacy:

Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen.

Odetta: The Last Words:

Odetta once observed: “I’m not a real folksinger. I don’t mind people calling me that, but I’m a musical historian.”

Odetta Holmes Biography and Profile

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