Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Legendary American folk singer Odetta dies at 77

from the New York Daily News:

Wednesday, December 3rd 2008, 1:09 PM

No stage was too large or small for Odetta, the powerful and much-loved singer who died Tuesday at 77 of heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Less than two months ago, despite advancing heart and kidney failure, she sang for tens of thousands in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In 1963, she sang as movingly about her dreams at the March on Washington as Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about his.
But in January 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, Odetta huddled with a small group of grade school children at St. John the Divine.
What they all needed to do that day, she said, was tell the grownups not to start a war, because war never solved anything. As she and the children shivered in their winter coats, she told them how important it was for them to raise their voices for what was right, even if it sometimes seemed like no one was listening. Then she led them in singing “This Little Light of Mine,” a song of quiet defiance that was written by Harry Dixon Loes for the church, but quickly made its way to the streets and in the 1950s became a civil rights anthem.
Like the song, Odetta herself became a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Raised in Los Angeles with training in music and dance, Odetta Felious came to New York in the early 1950s with a head full of songs and her own way of singing them.
She played nightclubs like the Blue Angel and Bon Soir, but soon became known as a folksinger because of her style, playing a spare guitar while she interpreted traditional folksongs, from “Foggy Dew” to “Home on the Range.” “They call me a folksinger because it’s short and easy, I guess,” she said in a 1987 interview. “And I don’t mind it. But I’m really a song interpreter. I’ve never found a way to subdivide music into categories.”
She was a major influence on Harry Belafonte, who often cited her role in launching his career, as well as later artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. She returned the compliment to Dylan by recording an album of his songs in 1965.
Over the years she would also record pop songs, classical songs, blues songs and rock songs, which among other things reflected the range in her voice. She could whisper as softly as any cabaret singer. She could also, when necessary, blow the roof off.
“Early in my career,” she said in 1987, “I remember a manager of mine saying the matter with me was that I competed with myself. That what I needed to do was find one sound and stick to that, so everyone knew me every time. “Well, I knew that was wrong — not for what he wanted, which was commercial success, but for the living art, for the music and the songs. “If you do that, if you look for that constant, you don’t allow yourself to flow. We have all kinds of songs going on within us.”
Odetta was exposed at a young age to both popular and classical music. On the popular side, she said, she liked bands like Jimmy Lunceford and Duke Ellington. She also began to find sharper-edged singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, as well as gospel and topical folk music. “I learned black history from music,” she said, and one of her lifelong missions was to pass along those lessons and the legacy of the artists who kept them alive.
“It’s past remiss,” she said about America’s failure to honor artists. “It’s downright embarrassing. So many artists in jazz, blues, classical and other styles have to leave the country to be recognized for their work. It’s as if we don’t notice someone until they’ve earned a whole lot of money.”
As for whether she felt America was embracing the causes she championed and sang about over the years, she would often reply, “It depends on what day you ask me.” Friends said she closely followed the 2008 election, exhilarated at the idea of America electing a black man as President. When word got out earlier this fall that she was seriously ill, a folksinger friend said “there’s no way” she would not live until the election.
Her long-time manager Doug Yeager said she had hoped to sing at the Obama inauguration. After she was hospitalized three weeks ago for kidney failure, she issued a statement Thanksgiving morning saying, “The world is trembling under the weight of many problems at this time. All the more reason we need to be grateful on this day and give thanks for the food and loved ones surrounding us and share our blessings with those less fortunate.”
Odetta was a familiar sight at schools and other local spots around New York, where she lived much of her life in an apartment at Fifth Ave. and 110th St. Married once many years ago and divorced, she is survived by a daughter, Michelle Esrick of New York, and a song, Boots Jaffre of Fort Collins, Colo.
Yeager says a memorial service is planned for next month.


Post a Comment

<< Home