We All Owe a Debt to Odetta: 15 Facts About the Legendary Folk Musician and Activist
April 22, 2020
If you’re jamming and head-bobbing to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jewel, Rihannon Giddens, and Miley Cyrus, you’re listening to the one and only Odetta. These folk roads lead back to her. She’s one of the most important singers of the last hundred years who’s influenced a huge number of artists over many decades, like the ones listed here. Where’s her Grammy?
A leader of the 1960s folk revival, Odetta channeled her anger and despair into some of the most powerful tunes the world has ever heard. Through her lyrics and iconic persona, she made lasting political, social, and cultural change. She used her fame and opera-trained voice to bring attention to the civil rights movement, working alongside Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, and other artists. Yet as influential as she and her sound have been, she never got her due or became as famous as she deserved to be. Now journalist Ian Zack has brought her back into the spotlight in the first full-length biography on her!
Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest follows her from her beginnings in deeply segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to stardom in San Francisco and New York. Reading along, you’ll come across these facts about the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Fact 1: In the early 1950s, Odetta made the brave decision to stop straightening her naturally kinky hair and wear it in what would come to be known as an afro: “I was the only black woman going around with nappy hair then…and I looked so exotic, so unlike other black American women, that people assumed I was African.” She had an afro decades before Angela Davis, who credits Odetta for influencing her style.
Fact 2: Odetta’s rendition of “Take This Hammer” was selected as one of TIME magazine’s All-TIME 100 songs, a collection of the most extraordinary English-language popular recordings.
Fact 3: In 1958, Bob Dylan found Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in a record store. From that moment on, he was heavily influenced by her sound, which lead him to transition to folk music.
Fact 4: Odetta was a classically trained singer. She began her voice training at thirteen.
Fact 5: Odetta experienced her first brush with folk music in 1950, after being cast as a member of the chorus in the musical Finian’s Rainbow.
Fact 6: Miley Cyrus used Odetta’s arrangement when she sang Bob Dylan’s “Baby, I’m In the Mood for You” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Fact 7: Odetta was slated to perform at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. She died just a month prior on December 2, 2008, at seventy-seven.
Fact 8: Odetta sang at the March on Washington beside Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fact 9: At the height of her fame, Odetta performed at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival.
Fact 10: In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given in the arts in the United States.
Fact 11: In 2003, the Library of Congress named her a Living Legend.
Fact 12: She would burn incense off her guitar head.
Fact 13: She was nominated for a Grammy in 1999 for “Blues Everywhere I Go.”
Fact 14: She performed with Langston Hughes in the CBS religious series Lamp Unto My Feet.
Fact 15: She received the key to the city of Birmingham, AL, in 1965 during the early stages of desegregation.
You can listen to Ian Zack’s top five Odetta hits from this playlist while you read:
- Spiritual Trilogy” (“Oh Freedom”/“Come and Go with Me”/“I’m On My Way”)
- “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain”/“Water Boy”
- “Take This Hammer”
- “The Gallows Pole”
- “Muleskinner Blues”