Deckle edge

by Chris Flisher © 1997 /
(first published March 1997 Worcester Phoeniz)

The broad appeal of traditional folk music resides in its open acknowledgment of the simple aspects of living. It’s the vernacular of the common man with roots that reach back as far as the music itself. Tapping into, and nurturing those roots is folk-legend Odetta.

A long-standing icon of the era when “folk-music” came into its commercial own, Odetta possesses a unique perceptive. Furthermore, as one of the first generation of singing folklorists to emerge from the early social movements of the 1960s, Odetta has seen society influence the progress of folk music and, in turn, seen the music influence society.

“Folk music helped to raise the questions that started the dialog,” offers Odetta in a recent conversation. “It is a medium that affects everyone on a common, root level. Nothing has that kind of indescribable effect like music. There is a vibration that comes through that hits people in their soul, like a heartbeat and when you combine that with a strong message you’ve got a powerful vehicle for change.”

And change it did. Throughout history, music, especially the music of and by the people, has clearly been an important apparatus of change. The role of folk music and its place in social history are the concepts addressed in a class that Odetta has begun teaching at Swarthmore College. Look no further than the last several decades to see the effect of music on society.

“It’s important that students not forget where we were and how far we’ve come,” she offers, quickly adding, “That’s not to say that we haven’t got further to go. I could do a benefit everyday for some good, solid cause and help raise awareness on several issues. In that, I see myself as a helper in the improvement of everyday life. Where would we be today if the unions hadn’t formed? Much of that movement came from the strength of music and its ability to communicate and inspire people to change. That’s what we need to remember.”

From humble beginnings in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta moved to Los Angeles as a teenager and began studying classical music. While in California she was exposed to folk music in the beatnik coffeehouses of San Francisco. Intrigued by the earthy message and simplistic approach of folk music, she taught herself guitar and eventually took to the stage as a soloist performing traditional folk music. Her simple, yet dynamic delivery is marked by a forceful, elastic alto that bends and swoops, croons and growls while her repertoire encompasses the whole folk dialog from traditional mining songs to field hollers and blues.

Odetta went on to become a founding member of the early folk movement that included Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and others. During their heyday these musicians helped to escalate social awareness. Since then, Odetta’s career has brought her to stages throughout the world where she continues to spread her positive, restorative message.

“There is a magic in music that can’t be described,” she admits, speaking slowly and adamantly. “It is a root-level form of healing that is instinctual and that’s why it works as a medium. I can remember getting sick while touring, as you often do, and then going on stage and performing a vigorous set of songs and then getting back to my hotel room trying to remember that I was sick because I wasn’t any more. It is a way of purging yourself and bringing your emotions out.”

Although Odetta’s recorded legacy remains hard to find and often only available as vinyl, she has recently recorded with local favorites, the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. Among her best known renditions are covers of jazz and blues-legend Bessie Smith, a character she has repeatedly interpreted throughout her career.

Odetta continues to inspire audiences with her powerful, energetic delivery and at 61 she sees no end to performing and spreading messages. It is a vehicle that remains potent, she offers, “There is still so much left to do that I do get discouraged sometimes, but then I realize how much we have done. People have been clothed and fed and housed because of some very fundamental changes in the system, so that can continue.”

After a brief interruption she continues, mulling over her thoughts about the process, “I do get sick and tired, but I’m not going to give in to the suckers.” Then, after a long pause, a deep, throaty, chuckle cracks across the line.
Chris Flisher

Deckle edge