Odetta

Odetta, the classically trained folk, blues and gospel singer who used her powerfully rich and dusky voice to champion African American music and civil rights issues for more than half a century starting in the folk revival of the 1950s,died on Dec. 3, 2008, She was 77.

She was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City for a checkup in mid-November but went into kidney failure. She died there Tuesday of heart disease, her manager, Doug Yeager, told the Associated Press.

With a repertoire that included 19th century slave songs and spirituals as well as the topical ballads of such 20th century folk icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Odetta became one of the most beloved figures in folk music.

She was said to have influenced the emergence of artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman.

"The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta," Dylan once said. "From Odetta, I went to Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, little by little uncovering more as I went along."

Her affinity for traditional African American folk songs was a hallmark of her long career, along with a voice that could easily sweep from dark, husky low notes to delicate yet goose bump-inducing high register tones.

"The first time I heard Odetta sing," Seeger once said, "she sang Leadbelly's ‘Take This Hammer’ and I went and told her how I wish Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her."

She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930. Her father died when she was young and she moved to Los Angeles at age 6 with her mother, sister and stepfather. She took the surname of her stepfather Zadock Felious, but throughout her career she used just her given name.

And although Los Angeles wasn't as overtly racist as the Deep South, she suffered some of the same indignities that came with being black.

"We lived within walking distance of Marshall High School," Odetta told The Times some years ago, "but they didn't let colored people go there, so we had to get on the bus and go to Belmont High School."

She attended Los Angeles City College after high school and earned a degree in music.

Trained as a classical vocalist as a child, she won a spot with a group called the Madrigal Singers in junior high school. She also realized early that despite her classical training, her options in that area were going to be limited because of the racism at the time.

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February 26, 2009

Remembering Odetta, Who Sang of Freedom

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