A couple of months ago, I read a short book review of Odetta A Life In Music And Protest. I hadn’t thought about Odetta for years. But I remembered how she was my favorite folksinger and next to Fats Domino, my favorite singer period until I was flattened by a steamroller named Bob Dylan. My birthday was coming up, and my younger stepdaughter always asks what I want for my birthday and father’s day, usually the same week. I requested the Odetta biography, and I finished it a few days ago. And so now I want to write about this singer-social activist who impacted me when I was a teenager.
One of the first things that came to mind as I was reading the book was when I first heard of and saw Odetta. “The Revlon Revue, Tonight With Harry Belafonte” was aired in December 1959. I remember looking forward to watching it, as I was a big fan of Harry Belafonte. I had two of his LPs among my then sparse record collection. I watched it with my mother, who was also a fan. The two things that I remembered over the years were there were no commercials and Odetta. The fact that there were no commercials was as rare as it is today on television. And Odetta. She blew my thirteen-year-old mind. And as soon as the show was over, I called my Aunt Esther, who had asked me earlier in the day what I wanted for Christmas/Chanukah (I was happy to celebrate both holidays). I asked her for an album by Odetta to be my present from her and my Uncle Max. Wish granted; I practically wore the grooves off the album in the first year I owned it.
The first concert that I was allowed to attend without an adult was Odetta at Carnegie Hall (the foremost concert venue in NY City) in 1960. I took the train into the city, met a friend, we had burgers, and went to the concert. I loved every minute of it. I saw her live again three years later at Town Hall (another major venue in New York City). She was excellent in concert, and two of my favorite albums were recordings of those concerts. “I’ve Been Drivin’ On Bald Mountain,” “The Ox Driver Song,” “Santy Anno,” “Take This Hammer,” and her “Freedom Trilogy” (a combination of three spirituals) played a small but essential role in my life.
Around the Town Hall concert, the British Invasion happened, and then Dylan went electric. My musical tastes changed. I stopped listening to Odetta or keeping track of her career. I did buy one of her albums, “Odetta Sings Dylan” (mostly because the songs were Dylan’). I thought it was only so-so, and after the late ‘60s, I’d pretty much forgotten about her.
The fact is I had “gone away” from Odetta, but she was still very much around. She was one of the performers in the historic 1964 March on Washington, and she remained very active in the human rights movement throughout her career and life. According to Odetta A Life in Music and Protest, while her commitment to social justice never wavered, her career was yo-yo-ing up and down, never reaching the level she got to during the salad days of the so-called folk music boom. Part of the problem, for her, was management. She never really had a manager that was both savvy in the music business and committed to making her career the priority. That plus the fact that her classically trained voice did not lend itself to rock or pop music further stymied her. After I finished the book, I listened to her post’60’s albums. As the book noted, the material didn’t seem to fit her voice. She became frustrated and disappointed, playing small clubs to the same aging fan base she had in the ‘60s. She began drinking more than maybe she should have, and her health began to fail. Yet during these problematic years, she maintained her commitment to human rights and continued to make herself available to perform at benefit concerts for various causes.
While her earlier forays into blues didn’t work, the author and the critics he quoted strongly praised two of her final three albums; the 1999 “Blues Everywhere I Go” and “Looking for a Home” (2001), an album composed of songs written by Huddie Ledbetter, “Leadbelly,” a folk icon, 12 string guitar maestro and a pardoned killer who wrote “Irene Goodnight.” Both albums were recorded for a label owned by a bar band drummer and his wife, who decided they wanted to record Odetta. I listened to both albums last week, and I think they’re the best work she’d done since the ‘60s. “Blues Everywhere I Go” received a Grammy nomination for a best blues album. It was her first and only Grammy nomination, and although she didn’t win (B.B. King won for the gazillionth time), it was a big deal for her.
Odetta’s health continued to decline, and she died in 2008. When I was a kid, her music was essential to me, and I’m happy I rediscovered both the music that moved me when I was young and her two late-career blues albums. And I’m glad I wrote this blog because Odetta deserves to be remembered and appreciated.
– Edward from McMinnville, Oregon, a FAR customer who is finding purpose in this new stage of his life.
Edward writes for FAR and is also a customer. He is 73-year-old, born and raised in and around New York City. After college and a little graduate school, he took Horace Greeley’s advice and went west. Edward lived in several cities throughout California and currently resides in Oregon. He practiced law for a few years as part of a law collective doing what they called “people’s law,” but spent most of his career working as an internal organizer for the unions.
When Edward’s career ended with the unions, he was determined to become an advocate for older adults. He enrolled at Portland Community College studying Gerontology. He learned a lot about aging and how it applied to his own life experiences and my own aging process. Much of Edward’s writing is related to what he learned in his Gerontology studies.
* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Finance of America Reverse (FAR) LLC