Famed Civils Rights Folk Singer Odetta Dies
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JEFFREY BROWN: In 1983, at the Lincoln Memorial, Odetta helped celebrate the 20th anniversary of a key moment in civil rights history that she herself had been part of, the 1963 march on Washington, when, as the New York Times wrote, Odetta’s “great, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill.”
She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930 and moved to Los Angeles with her family at age 6.
She came to prominence as a folk singer in the 1950s and was a leading influence on many other artists, including Bob Dylan, who once said, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.”
She also became a powerful voice in the civil rights movement.
Wade Henderson, longtime head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, talked with us today.
WADE HENDERSON, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: I just think she was such an extraordinary presence. And for those of us who grew up in civil rights movement and who recognized the risks that many people before us had taken to really advance the spirit of liberation, Odetta helped to symbolize that.
Rosa Parks, for example, the great civil rights icon, when asked about who influenced her from a musical tradition, often referred to Odetta and talked about the songs of Odetta as really being a source of inspiration to her.
JEFFREY BROWN: She won audiences and honors for her ballads, spirituals, and songs of work and prison, like the traditional folk song, “Waterboy.”
In January of this year, in her last television interview, Odetta talked to PBS’s Tavis Smiley.
ODETTA: I love to perform. It has been the music, folk music that has informed me, educated me, got me to feeling good and better about myself, and I have a need to propagandize and to continue putting out the stories of how strong a group of people we came from, how we got over, under, through, in spite of all the feet that were holding us down. And so I am a propagandist, really.
JEFFREY BROWN: At the end of the interview, Odetta sang, “Keep On Movin’ It On.”
Odetta died in New York yesterday of heart disease. She was 77 years old.