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
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
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