09 Dec



December 4, 2008

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In 1963, my family returned to the United States after my father’s 13-year stint as a foreign correspondent for this newspaper. I was born in New Delhi and had lived in Austria, Poland, Switzerland and Japan. I was 7 years old and had spent a total of about a month in America.

Everything about this home I never knew was strange and fascinating, but nothing more than the music. I had a red plastic transistor radio on which I obsessively listened to the Beatles. I was also obsessed with a four-LP set my parents bought in New York called “Folk Songs and Minstrelsy.” Cisco Houston, the Weavers and Tommy Makem became part of my life’s soundtrack.

But it was the voice on sides 4 and 5 of that set that had the deepest impact: Odetta, the transcendent folk singer who died on Tuesday. Her songs were at first difficult for my young ear: the power of her voice, and their unfamiliar rhythms. But in listening to Odetta, and asking my parents what her words were about, my eyes were opened to the crimes and tragedies embedded in American history. This was not a part of the curriculum in the first and second grades I attended in Tokyo and only just beginning to be a part of my New York schooling.

“No More Auction Block for Me” led to conversations about slavery, about the “many thousand gone” in the Middle Passage, about the “driver’s lash” that enforced the bondage of men, women and children.

Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77

Wednesday 03 December 2008

by: Tim Weiner, The New York Times

Full Article:

Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 77.

The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager. He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Odetta sang at coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, made highly influential recordings of blues and ballads, and became one of the most widely known folk-music artists of the 1950s and ’60s. She was a formative influence on dozens of artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.

Her voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white images of the freedom marchers who walked the roads of Alabama and Mississippi and the boulevards of Washington in the quest to end racial discrimination.

Rosa Parks, the woman who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., was once asked which songs meant the most to her. She replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”

Odetta sang at the march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement, in August 1963. Her song that day was “O Freedom,” dating to slavery days: “O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me, And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”

Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930, in the depths of the Depression. The music of that time and place – particularly prison songs and work songs recorded in the fields of the Deep South – shaped her life.

“They were liberation songs,” she said in a videotaped interview with The New York Times in 2007 for its online feature “The Last Word.” “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.”

Her voice plunged deep and soared high, and her songs blended the personal and the political, the theatrical and the spiritual. Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” resonated with an audience hearing old songs made new.

Bob Dylan, referring to that recording, said in a 1978 interview, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he heard something “vital and personal,” and added, “I learned all the songs on that record.” It was her first, and the songs were “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Water Boy,” “‘Buked and Scorned.”……………………………….

In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded Odetta the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities.

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