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Remembering Odetta

It just seems wrong that this February is the month of a memorial celebration here in New York for Odetta, who died in December. By rights, it should have been the month after her participation in the inauguration of President Obama, an event that would have marked a fitting and joyous high point in her participation in the civil rights struggle in America. While in Lenox Hill Hospital with kidney failure in November, Odetta’s manager, Doug Yeager, stated that “Odetta believes she is going to sing at Obama’s Inauguration, and I believe that is the reason she is still alive. She has a big poster of Barack Obama taped on the wall across from her bed.”

A long list of musicians is scheduled to attend the memorial, a free event at Riverside Church on February 24 at 7 p.m.—Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Bernice Reagon, Maya Angelou, and Tom Chapin are just a few scheduled to come. The place will be packed; get there early.

OdettaOdetta was one of her generation’s great singers, especially in the blues, influencing people like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Joan Baez. When I was growing up, my family had an LP record with a whole bunch of different singers on it, including Baez, the Weavers, Mahalia Jackson, and Odetta. There were some others I’ve since forgotten, but Odetta made a big impression. For years, I thought that the person singing “Down on Me,” a spiritual from that LP, was a man. Odetta’s voice is that low, and that rich. Prior to that record, I don’t think I’d heard any women sing that way before. It’s just Odetta and her guitar, and you can hear the rendition here.  She sings it in G major, and when she reaches down to “Looks like everybody in the whole round world down on me,” she hits a solid E below middle C on “down.” She doesn’t need to over-emote, or rasp, or add a catch to her voice to get the point across: the natural sound does it all for her. In this song, there is absolute certainty that though everybody in the “whole round world” may be “down on me,” and Martha, Mary, Luke, and John may be “dead and gone,” there’s a heaven where the streets really are paved with gold, and that “one of these mornings, bright and fair” she’ll be up she’ll “try the air.” (Janis Joplin’s rendition of this same song has different verses, focusing on earthly struggles like “Love in this world is so hard to find.”)

When you listen to recordings of another, earlier great blues singer, Bessie Smith, you hear the rough, grainy edges of a life lived on the edge, with not a little hardship. What you hear in Odetta’s voice—whether it’s “Hard, Oh Lord” or “How Long Blues”—is not frustration or sadness or struggle but power and solidity and faith, a real “We Shall Overcome” strength. Wouldn’t it have been great to hear her sing “This Little Light of Mine” before the millions of people on the Mall, right after Aretha Franklin’s “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”?

Photo of Odetta by Lee Paxton

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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