Odetta is such a unique artist and human being, in a country and an era that prizes individualism, I am sometimes afraid she is one of a kind. She just decided to swing her own way and became her own woman while drawing nurture from her own deep roots. Odetta is famous around the world, though she’s never had one hit song.
I suspect that most people under the age of 30 don’t really know much about Odetta. She performed for John Kennedy on the televised Dinner with the President. Soon after, she made her presence known at the historic March on Washington on 28 August 1963 to publicize the need for civil rights legislation. Although who really wants to remember them, don’t forget Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, his thugs with hickory ax handles and the hate cheer leaders of those times. Odetta couldn’t so she went to Alabama and joined the march to Selma to protest the bombing of black churches and killing of children. Odetta has since been honored and entered into the Alabama Hall of Fame. In 1999, President Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts. That same year, Vanguard issued their own compilation of Odetta’s early works.
Born in Alabama in 1930, Odetta was raised in Los Angeles. Her singing voice was noticed early on. Her mother worked in a theater as a “domestic engineer” (the job title for cleaning lady) while saving for Odetta’s music lessons. Maybe not as bad as the deeply segregated South, but Odetta remembers that in Los Angeles then there was an unspoken role that she sit “up South” in the balcony when seeing a movie.
Odetta worked as a maid while she attended Los Angeles City College for her degree in classical music and music comedy. She landed a job in Finian’s Rainbow and might have ended up on Broadway were it not for a chance encounter with music that captivated her.
“I was studying classical voice and then at the age of 19, I heard an evening of what they called ‘folk’ songs. And those songs had more to do with what my life was, and my concerns were, than classical lyrics. I still love classical music, but it didn’t have anything to do with our lives as we live them.” She told the New York Times in 1981, “But I learned about the United States and the people of the United States through this music, through the songs that I sing”. By 1950, Odetta was onstage singing ‘folk’ music.
One of the basic parts of music, the very reason we are drawn to certain music or an individual song is the most difficult to describe. Usually, you can’t begin to explain why even to yourself while it’s happening. One component can be the emotional attachment to music. An effective song moves the listener in some way, first stirring and evoking a response in a shifting emotional landscape. As we live in a society where even talking about feelings is difficult, describing how a song moves you becomes harder still. More so because the same song doesn’t necessarily always evoke the same emotional response.
Some songs are able to reach deep down inside the listener. This is the highest form of musical expression, where the music is not merely listened to but felt. I hope everyone has had an experience like this with music, but apparently some people haven’t.
These are slave songs, prison songs, work songs, and spirituals guaranteed to stir the emotions. Odetta sings each one in a personal way, as if every song reminds her of someone or revives a memory about the person she learned it from.
“Pretty Horses” is a child’s lullaby. The song describing all the pretty little horses is a description of plantation life. A soothing melody complete with a surprising detail of the cruelty of nature, almost inexplicable and incomprehensible, the fear and heartbreak of witnessing that intrinsic part of life finds a way even into lullaby.
Odetta’s most melancholy song here is “Lowlands”. A man is reading a letter from his mother who is urging him to just come home. To return home means quitting his lonely, dangerous job at sea. “Five dollars a day is white man’s pay, Mine dollar and a half a day, Dollar and a half is black man’s pay.” The song moves along as slowly as a boat slipping across the surface of still waters. Dollar and a half is all that separates one day from the next. Dollar and a half is repeated as a way to help mark the passage of time. The wages, the only reason for being there, are a daily reminder the system is deceitful and unfair, people are made to feel humiliated even when they are participating; their contributions though necessary are not valued or valorized. Though this can sound dolorous, this is not a plaintive song, dignity is there to be found.
The 18 songs here are culled from her two records on Tradition recorded in 1956 and 1957. This collection appears to be part of a leasing deal to a company dedicated to supplying the nostalgia market. Much of the quality of the original lacking despite the remastering and “sonic cleansing”.
The marketplace now is a land of pulsing and focused energies, yet a place where civilization has failed to provide an adequate environment, providing only the facade of a store front. As this collection does nothing to connect the present with the past, aside from the fantasy of consumerism, I can’t help but feel that Odetta here at least has been dispossessed of her proper environment, which is by no means a unique observation.