Folk legend Odetta, 75, reflects on a pioneer's life

by Annette John-Hall

The Philadelphia Inquirer

5 December 2006


For more than 50 years, blues and folk legend Odetta has pioneered a special brand of socially conscious music. Born in Alabama and raised in Los Angeles, Odetta made a name for herself on the San Francisco coffeehouse circuit in the 1950s and ‘60s, and inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Still performing at 75, Odetta, a 1999 winner of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts, possesses a range that goes from soprano to baritone.

She spoke by phone from New York about Marian Anderson, country music, and wearing an Afro.

Q: How did you go from studying classical music and opera to singing blues and folk music?

A: I was a smart kid and I knew that a black girl who was big like I was was never going to be in the Metropolitan Opera. Look at Marian Anderson, my hero. It wasn’t until she was almost retired before they invited her to sing at the Met. I had taken the clues.

Q: What attracted you to folk music?

A: Folk was singing about things that concerned me. It was the prison work songs that got to me first. Classical music was all very airy. That was not where I lived. I lived where (singing) “You can take the hammer and carry it to the captain and tell him I’m done!” (laughs).

Q: When you hear that artists like Dylan were inspired by you, how does that make you feel?

A: That makes me feel all kinds of useful. You don’t know how what you do is going to affect somebody. That’s really the gravy, when you’re doing something you like to do and somebody comes along and likes it.

Q: You were one of the first women to wear an Afro.

A: I was the first. They used to call it “The Odetta.”

Q: When did you start wearing it?

A: It was in the ‘50s, like 1955 or ‘56. In grammar school I remember reading a book about slaves and they were happy and singing ... I remember feeling terrible about it. I also remember questioning as a black person ... We grew up with some terrible lies, and I didn’t want my hair looking like a white woman’s.

I was in a children’s show, and after I completed my obligation, I cut my hair, washed it, and that was the way it was. In those days I had to go to the barbershop to get it cut. If the barber looked like it was a good idea, I’d sit in his chair. If he looked at me like I was crazy, I’d suddenly remember another appointment I’d have to go to (laughs).

Q: What’s your favorite song?

A: I’m much too greedy to have a favorite ... I’ve collected Library of Congress records. I love the work songs from the back of the woods. People keeping time getting work done, chopping sugar cane and cotton. Children playing in the schoolyard when we were allowed to go school. It’s a treasure trove.

Q: What kind of contemporary music do you like?

A: When I listen to music, I listen to country-western. That’s where the clever writing is done, and musically it’s put together so well.

Q: What social issues would you sing about today?

A: Oh, dear. There are so many. Government-wise, this administration has appointed too many foxes to guard the henhouse. We need to get this enemy of the people out of power ... It’s too complicated. Whatever I think, it wouldn’t be fixed soon. So we have to keep moving it on.

Q: How are you going to celebrate your birthday (Dec. 31)?

A: I really don’t know. At one point, I performed on New Year’s Eve and I hated that. I hated being around too many people who had two drinks and acted like they had 10.

There used to be a program at (Cathedral Church of) St. John the Divine for peace. I was asked to read poetry and light candles. I liked that. And we always got out before the pretenders got in there (laughs).

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