Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Singing The Praises Of Sis. Odetta...

Video: Sis. Odetta On The Johnny Cash Show

Historically, The Black Experience Has Been Chronicled In Music And Odetta Joined The Tradition

Stirring speeches, from pulpits and street corners, helped motive the courageous souls involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Music, together with the speeches, helped light the fire of passion in activists who took it upon themselves to right the wrongs of American society. Of all the voices raised in song, few rang with such passion and commitment as that of Odetta. Odetta, who was born in Alabama, died Dec. 2 in New York at age 77. Her soaring lyrics depicted the bittersweet experience of being black in America and envisioned a time when racial bigotry would be little more than a memory.

Historically, the black experience has always been chronicled in music and Odetta joined the tradition of those who showed an acute sensitivity to the issue of race and culture. As part of the cadre of black singers and musicians who were in the forefront of the freedom movement, she influenced other young musicians interested in civil rights and antiwar causes.

Odetta’s style was to assume the character of the person she was singing about. She could mimic the feelings of a convict breaking rocks, the distress of a woman whose mate was unfaithful, and the agony of a black person denied justice and equality. She came along at a time when black people were rejecting the image that had been foisted on them by white America and began defining their own lives in terms of their own choosing.

Odetta took Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and with her distinctive vocalizing made it her own. Guthrie wrote the song as an answer to “God Bless America,” which depicted a saccharine America without acknowledging its underlying problems. She influenced some big names in folk music: Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Her songs were effective in bringing people together because they centered on the common interests of various groups and affirmed that different views can converge to a point, like rays of light focused by a lens.

Odetta Holmes, as she was named, was born in Birmingham and she became one of those rare singers whose voice and bearing lifted her to a level where one name only was sufficient to evoke an aura of admiration. Among others in that category are Bessie and Billie, Ella, Sarah and Aretha.

I first learned about Odetta during the time she was performing at New York coffee houses from stories in The Village Voice, the Greenwich Village newspaper that I read every week. I was a young photographer-reporter and would-be bohemian, but I soon learned it’s hard to be hip when you have to work 40 hours a week. Later, however, I became attracted to the metaphysical idea that being a hipster can also arise from a state of mind as well as a series of overt actions.

As the civil rights movement retreated from mass demonstrations in the wake of the assassinations of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the folk music-protest song genre no long held center stage. But Odetta continued touring with songs in the same vein, and she performed in Memphis in the 1980s.

Folk music and protest songs may no longer top the charts, but such music is still being issued. In September, Blue Note records released a CD, “Rich Man’s War: New Blues and Roots Songs of Peace and Protest,” about the Bush presidency. It is a compilation of songs by various artists criticizing the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, the ecological crisis, the government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina, discrimination and economic injustice. Among singers on the CD are Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, a W. C. Handy Award winner, and Guitar Shorty, brother-in-law of Jimi Hendrix.

Odetta, while no longer a towering presence, had continued to record and perform. Because of a body weakened by illness she had begun to sing from a wheelchair, but her voice and spirit remained strong. She sang at the March on Washington and was hoping for an invitation to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Odetta and those with similar views who preceded her and followed her knew that music is often an effective way to introduce change.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

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