Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(Odetta Holmes Felious Gorden, b 31 December 1930, Birmingham AL; d 2 December 2008) Folk-blues singer, songwriter, actress, teacher. She grew up in Los Angeles, studied music at City College there, joined the chorus of a touring company of the Yip Harburg--Burton Lane show Finian's Rainbow '49, finished her studies and decided to stick with folk music, making her pro debut in San Francisco '52, at the Blue Angel NYC '53. She said that school had taught her to read and write and to count, but folk music was where she had learned about the lives of real people.

She was helped in early days by Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, appearing with Belafonte on a TV special '59 (her iconic 'Water Boy' was unusally powerful television in that era) and on one of his biggest-selling albums (Returns To Carnegie Hall '60). Her own first LPs were Odetta Sings Ballads And Blues '56, Odetta At The Gate Of Horn '57 on Tradition, then Odetta And The Blues '62 on Riverside, with Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Herb Hall (Edmond Hall's brother), piano and arrangements by Dick Wellstood, young Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, drummer Berisford 'Shep' Shepherd (b 1917; also played on Bill Doggett's 'Honky Tonk'). Odetta on Fantasy was followed by Odetta Sings Folk Songs on RCA '63 (top 75 LPs USA). On Vanguard: At Town Hall '62, One Grain Of Sand '64, At Carnegie Hall '67, Sings Ballads And Blues. Some of these stayed in print for many years, testifying to her long-term (if low-key) popularity; her classical training also led to concerts with Symphony of the Air, and acting/singing in Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Medium. She wrote songs 'Music', 'Give Me Your Hand', 'Got To Be Me'; acted in Arthur Miller's The Crucible in Stratford, Ontario; she appeared in films Sanctuary '60, The Effects Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds '72. There was an album It's Impossible on a Fourleaf Clover label in UK '78; live concert Movin' It On '86 on a Rose Quartz label.

Rosa Parks, whose arrest on a segregated Alabama bus sparked off the civil rights movement, was once asked what her favorite songs were. 'All the songs Odetta sings,' she said. Odetta marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and performed for President Kennedy, but after King was murdered the whole folk/protest movement lost momentum, and so did Odetta's career. She continued singing and acting and appeared on NPR's Prairie Home Companion several times from the 1990s. She made her first album in 14 years in 1999, the year President Clinton awarded her a National Endowment for the Arts Medal. She appeared on David Letterman's show during its first week back on the air after the 9/11 attacks singing a gospel song, 'This Little Light Of Mine.' In April 2007, 50 years after Bob Dylan memorized all the songs on one of her early albums, she appeared at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce Springsteen, and turned his '57 Channels' into a spoken chant. Springsteen said it was the greatest performance of his song he had ever heard.  

Odetta was looking forward to attending the inauguration of Barack Obama, but she didn't quite make it. The first (and very good) biography was Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest by Ian Zack (2020).