Odetta Holmes folk singer championed black history, civil rights
Odetta, who used just her given name professionally, had trained as a classical vocalist as a child and later discovered folk music, which she said really touched where I live. She became an inspiration to other folk singers and eventually received a National Medal of Arts and a Living Legend Award.
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, has died. 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.
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. 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, 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.