Dead, Odetta Holmes on December 2, 2008 at the age of 77, known as Odetta, she was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, and a civil and human rights activist, often referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles, attended Belmont High School, and studied music at Los Angeles City College while employed as a domestic worker.
She had operatic training from the age of 13. Her mother hoped she would follow Marian Anderson, but Odetta doubted a large black girl would ever perform at the Metropolitan Opera.
Her first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lanchester.
In May 1975 she appeared on public television’s Say Brother program, performing “Give Me Your Hand” in the studio, in addition to speaking about her spirituality, the music tradition from which she drew, and her involvement in civil rights struggles.
In 1976, Odetta performed in the U.S. Bicentennial opera Be Glad Then, America by John La Montaine, as the Muse for America; with Donald Gramm, Richard Lewis and the Penn State University Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony.
The production was directed by Sarah Caldwell who was the director of the Opera Company of Boston at the time.
On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honoured at the Kennedy Center with the “Visionary Award” along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman.
In 2005, the Library of Congress honored her with its “Living Legend Award”. Her highly acclaimed final album, a live recording performed when she was 74 years old, was entitled Gonna Let It Shine (2005).
Her music inspired a generation of civil rights activists who helped tear down the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow to build a more equal and just United States of America.
In her later years, after the popularity of folk music had declined, Odetta made it her mission to share its potency with a new generation of youth. “The folk repertoire is our inheritance. Don’t have to like it, but we need to hear it,” she said. “I love getting to schools and telling kids there’s something else out there.
In 2006, Odetta opened shows for jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and in 2006 she toured the US, Canada, and Europe accompanied by her pianist, which included being presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference, and also in a concert in Riga’s historic 1,000-year-old Maza Guild Hall.
In December 2006, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their “Lifetime Achievement Award”. In February 2007, the International Folk Alliance awarded Odetta as “Traditional Folk Artist of the Year”.
She made an appearance on June 30, 2008, at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, New York City for a Liam Clancy tribute concert. Her last big concert, before thousands of people, was in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008, for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.