A New Biography of Odetta Reveals a Difficult Life Well SungHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, music, folk revival
Writer Ian Zack’s engaging, well-researched biography, Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest (Beacon Press), brings forth a most remarkable, regrettable truth: The unorthodox hairdo and physical dimensions of one of the most influential 20th-century American folk singers received nearly as much critical attention during her lifetime as did her impressive voice and vital role in African Americans’ fight for civil rights.
Born in widely segregated Birmingham, Alabama, contralto/guitarist Odetta Holmes (1930 – 2008) moved as young girl with her family to Los Angeles. At age 13, she began voice training, singing German lieder and art songs in private opera lessons and performing in choirs and theater ensembles.
As a young adult during the folk music revival of the mid-1950s and ’60s, she began a career that had her performing in San Francisco at the War Memorial Opera House and clubs like the Tin Angel on the Embarcadero. Appearing on the East Coast in New York City nightclubs and on tour in venues worldwide, Odetta’s concerts were a hybrid blend of folk tunes, spirituals, chain gang work songs, children’s music, and jazz standards. The jazz was more successfully rendered in her later years, when her smooth contralto voice weathered and her onstage anxiety was ground down by a life of hard blows.
Zack’s compelling biography traces the wax and wane of Odetta’s career that had her at the high points performing on prime-time television as a featured star in friend and admirer Harry Belafonte’s groundbreaking specials, and singing in support of the civil-rights movement at the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery march. The appearances earned for Odetta the titles “Queen of Folk” and “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” A regrettable sign of an overtly racist, sexist society, she received significant mention in the press regarding the unironed, short, kinky afro she sported and about her generous girth.
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