Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Alabama (USA) in 1930 and moved with her family to Los Angeles at the age of six. When her father died, she took her stepfather’s last name, Felious.
Hearing her in glee club, a junior high school teacher made sure she received music lessons and she started singing with The Madrigal Singers. But Odetta became interested in folk music in her late teens and turned away from classical studies after realising that her options in classical music were going to be limited because of the rampant racism at the time.
She attended Los Angeles City College after high school and earned a degree in music. By 19 she had turned her focus to folk music and landed a part in a production of Finian’s Rainbow as a chorus member. When the musical went on the road to San Francisco she went with it. The trip marked an important crossroads in her emergence as a folk singer.
She gained much of her early experience at the Turnabout Theater in Los Angeles, where she sang and played occasional stage roles and first came to prominence.
Odetta left the theatre company in 1950 and took a job at a folk club in San Francisco. Following a long engagement at The Tin Angel, she was booked in New York at The Blue Angel where she was embraced by the Greenwich Village folk community. Soon after, she appeared with Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall shows with Pete Seeger.
She started touring and recorded her first album, The Tin Angel, in 1954. She soon caught the attention of such folk music icons as Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Bob Dylan famously claimed she turned him on to folk singing. She returned the favour by recording 1965’s Odetta Sings Dylan.
Pete Seeger said the first time he heard Odetta sing she sang Take This Hammer. “I went and told her how I wish Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her,” Seeger elaborates in the liner notes on her Odetta – Lookin’ For A Home album. That album is comprised of 15 songs either written or made famous by Leadbelly, including such classics as Midnight Special, Rock Island Line, Goodnight Irene, Alabama Bound and Where Did You Sleep Last Night (In The Pines).
Odetta became a fixture on the folk music scene by the time of the genre’s commercial boom during the late 1950s and early 60s. She played at the Newport Folk Festival – the showcase event for folk music – four times between 1959 and 1965. She also had a recording contract with Vanguard Records, which at the height of the folk music boom was the genre’s leading label.
In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr anointed her “the Queen of American folk music”.
But it was her rendition of the slavery-age song O Freedom performed two years later at King Jr’s march on Washington that cemented her status as one of the musical touchstones of the Civil Rights movement. When she sang at the march, she called on her fellow blacks to “take pride in the history of the American Negro”.
Black activist Rosa Parks, who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by famously refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus, was asked once which songs meant the most to her and she answered, “All of the songs Odetta sings”.
“I’m not a real folk singer,” she said in 1983. “I don’t mind people calling me that, but I’m a musical historian. I’m a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I’ve been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandising”.
Among her notable early works were her 1965 album Odetta Sings Ballads And Blues, which included such songs as Muleskinner Blues and Jack O’ Diamonds, and her 1957 At The Gate Of Horn which featured the popular spiritual He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.
She was nominated for a 1963 Grammy award for Best Folk Recording for Odetta Sings Folk Songs. Two more Grammy nominations came in later years for her 1999 Blues Everywhere I Go and her 2005 album, Gonna Let It Shine. She was awarded the National Endowment For The Arts Medal Of The Arts And Humanities in 1999 by President Bill Clinton and was a Kennedy Center honouree in 2004.
She was divorced around 1970 and never remarried.
She died in New York on 2 December 2008 from heart disease. Odetta was survived by a daughter, Michelle Esrick, and a son, Boots Jaffre.