Born Odetta Holmes, in Birmingham, Alabama, December 31st in 1930, and raised and schooled in Los Angeles since the age of six, ODETTA began serious studies of classical music and voice at the age of thirteen, while dreaming of following in the footsteps of her idol Marian Anderson. Almost simultaneously, she was asked to join the ensemble cast at Hollywood’s famed Turnabout Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lancaster, and stayed with the company for four years. However, by the age of eighteen, aware that even the greatest contralto in the world, Marian Anderson, couldn't break through the segregationist barriers of the major opera companies, ODETTA decided to join the chorus of the road company tour of "Finian's Rainbow" (which included folk legend, Sonny Terry). While with the company in San Francisco, she became exposed to folk music, learned to play the guitar, and soon began appearing at that city's popular folk clubs, such as the Tin Angel. Word quickly spread like wildfire across the country, of this powerful black woman singing Negro folk songs that could shake the rafters with her voice, touch your soul with her words and move you with her dramatic presence. And she began to tour beyond the West Coast, to record and to gain support from influential artists. Upon her arrival in Chicago for the first time, as her taxi pulled up at the legendary Gate of Horn club, blues legends Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy were waiting outside the venue to show her their big-brotherly support while she was in Chicago.…. "Welcoming their little sister to the big city," she would fondly recall. And upon arriving in New York the first time, for her engagement at the Blue Angel, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte repeatedly came to her shows, and actively brought influential people with them who were instrumental in assisting and furthering her career. She was soon breaking ground for a black female artist in America.
ODETTA explored expanding fields of song, and showed a great depth of feeling whether she sang Negro work songs, the blues, jazz, spirituals, white Appalachian songs or English folk songs—always masterfully accompanied by her own unique guitar style. Her exploration left her with a deep passion for American folk music--determining that it is a "unique music form, because it is derived from a combination of different peoples. It came from almost every continent and country-from all those who immigrated to America, because everyone came here from somewhere else with his own music..….American folk music became a unique blend of all people's music." Much of her research and her eventual repertoire came from The Archives of Folk Music at The Library of Congress-an institution which will remain dear to her for the remainder of her career. . . . "I'm an interpreter of folk music which encompasses more than folk songs handed down from the generations. It includes work songs, game songs, children's songs, gospel and blues…songs from people who had to entertain themselves outside of their daily work and songs for people and their emotional needs," she has said.
And in the 1950s, she: recorded ground-breaking albums on Riverside, Tradition, Fantasy and Vanguard Records; brought the houses down at the Newport Festival and at her triumphant Carnegie Hall concerts; appeared in the `surround-a-screen’ 1955 film “CINERAMA HOLIDAY” and on national TV Specials, including the EMMY Award winning “Tonight with Belafonte;” and she toured the world's greatest stages; while in the process becoming the first major influence on the future careers of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, among countless others. Dylan reported that he traded in his electric guitar and amp for an acoustic guitar in 1956 after hearing an Odetta album, "I learned all the songs on that record, it was her first, and the songs were "Mule Skinner," "Jack of Diamonds," "Water Boy," "Buked and Scorned." Janis Joplin wrote that Odetta and Bessie Smith were her earliest influences, and appropriately, the recent Off-Broadway musical “LOVE JANIS” featured Odetta recordings in its overture. Her 1950s and 60s classic recordings of "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands," "Kumbaya," "Goodnight Irene," "Midnight Special,” This Little Light of Mine" and "Amazing Grace," became folk and spiritual classics throughout the world and inspired an entire generation. After years of influencing society with her performances and recordings, by the end of the decade she became a major voice in America's Civil Rights Movement. When Rosa Parks was asked by her biographer, Douglas Brinkley, which songs of the civil rights movement mattered most to her, she would say, “Essentially, all of the songs Odetta sings.”
By the early 1960s, ODETTA had made a triumphant tour of Africa, marched with Dr. King in Selma, sang for the masses at the 1963 March on Washington, and performed for President John F. Kennedy and his cabinet on the nationally televised Special Civil Rights Special, "Dinner With The President." She had also earned respect as an actress, as she appeared in films and in prestige stage productions. She made her dramatic film debut in Faulkner's “SANCTUARY,” appearing with Yves Montand and Lee Remick in the 1961 film directed by Tony Richardson; and the same year was giving a powerful guest starring role in the television series “HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL.” On stage, director John Wood, cast her in the role of Tituba, in “THE CRUCIBLE” for the Stratford Shakespeare Company in Ontario, and then cast her again two seasons later in “GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. She was also guest hostess of the popular national children's radio show, "SPIDER’S WEB," for which she recorded the theme music. Her Vanguard Record’s “ODETTA Sings Christmas Spirituals” album, released in 1960, was featured by her on Christmas Eve that year on “ED SULLIVAN SHOW” and it has been a holiday staple in the record stores for more than forty-five years now! The folk purists however in 1962, were shocked and offended by the release of her first blues band album, "ODETTA AND THE BLUES," backed by Buck Clayton and an all star band. However, Joan Baez came to her defense in an interview, saying, "The great ODETTA, born Odetta Felious in Birmingham, is currently under fire for doing a blues album that is closer to jazz than folk. But she remains one of the best folk singers going; her brawny female baritone can run through a wider variety of mood and matter than most singers would dare attempt." Meanwhile, she continued her international touring, released many landmark albums for Vanguard and RCA Records, joined an all star cast at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl for the live concert recordings of the "WOODY GUTHRIE TRIBUTE," and made duet recording guest appearances on albums of Joan Baez and of Jimmy Witherspoon.
The 1970s, saw ODETTA's career expanding on many fronts, including her long association of performing with some of the world's celebrated symphony orchestras and ballet companies. In 1972, along with Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Eubie Blake, she was among the first group of recipients of the "Duke Ellington Fellowship Award," presented each year by Duke Ellington at Yale University. In 1973, she joined Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Dizzy Gillespie in a Carnegie Hall “75th Birthday Salute to Paul Robeson.” In 1975, she hosted the "Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival," and starred at virtually every other major festival around the world. In 1976, Long time fan Sarah Caldwell cast her as the Muse of Liberty for John La Montaine's “BE GLAD THEN AMERICA,” an opera commissioned for the U.S. Bicentennial. On television, she appeared with Cicely Tyson in the award winning TV Movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and was a featured guest on the Dick Cavett Show, and on Public Television's "Salute to American Pop." As the `70s closed, she began her long relationship, Guest Starring on the national hit radio show, "PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION," with its creator and friend Garrison Keeler.
During the 1980s, ODETTA's touring schedule worldwide remained as active as ever, as did her recording, acting, and her radio and television appearances. Luciano Berio invited her to open the Fiat Arts Center in Turin, Italy, and she also toured Africa, Australia, Asia and The Soviet Union. She starred in the stage production Bessie Smith, and created the role of Cobalt Blue in Toni Morrision's musical New Orleans. For national PBS Television, she starred in "RAMBLIN' with ODETTA;" co- starred on the Soundstage Concert Special, "JUST FOLKS" with old friends Bob Gibson, Tom Paxton and Josh White, Jr.; and on the PBS Concert Special "The 25th Anniversary Concert of Folk City." Her celebrated live concert album, “ODETTA – Moving It On,” was released in 1986. And she was presented with "Lifetime Achievement Award(s)" from The Federation of Protestant Charities, from the World Folk Music Society, and from The National Music Council, who presented her with its "American Eagle Award" in 1987 for her distinguished contribution to American music--and for, in the words of Morton Gould, "reminding musicians that we have consciences."
ODETTA launched the `90s with her German album release, "ODETTA: Women In (E) Motion," and followed it up with appearances on the continent's major TV variety and talk shows and a European tour, including a performance at The Festival for The World Cup (Soccer) Finals in Italy. The decade continued actively with the TV & Radio concert Specials: "The Boston Pops with ODETTA, Shirley Verrett, and The Boys Choir of Harlem;" "Tommy Makem & Friends;" "Peter, Paul & Mary - Lifelines" (CD and video); "Nanci Griffith & Other Voices" (CD and video); and she co-starred with Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Josh White, Jr, Peter Yarrow and Arlo Guthrie in "Oscar Brand's 50th Anniversary Radio Concert," for National Public Radio. She also co-starred with Burl Ives (last performance), Pete Seeger, Art Garfunkel, Theodore Bikel, Josh White, Jr., The Chad Mitchell Trio, Tom Paxton and Oscar Brand, for New York's "92nd Street Y's 50th Anniversary Folk Concert." For the "CBS-TV's Sunday Morning" show, TV correspondent and jazz legend Billy Taylor traveled with ODETTA on her first trip back to Birmingham, Alabama in fifty years, and followed her while she gave a master class to the Colby College Choir and received an Honorary Doctorate (joining her other Honorary Doctorates from Bennett College, Los Angeles City College, and Johnson C. Smith University), and as she gave a benefit concert at Birmingham's Black Hall of Fame. ODETTA, Nina Simone and Miriam McKeba made a highly successful "Three Divas Concert Tour" of Europe, and she returned to tour Australia, New Zealand and Japan. She also was a Guest Star on the Pete Seeger Tribute Album "Where Have All The Flowers Gone;" "A Tribute To Earl Robinson;" on "Nancy Griffith & Other Voices;" and happily she saw the CD reissues of most of her old albums from the `50s, `60s and 70s. ODETTA was featured in the book, I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America; and in 1995, she was honored to be invited, as an "Elder," to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. As the decade was closing, ODETTA released her live festival album, "To Ella," (recorded at the Kerrville Folk Festival - minutes after learning of Ella Fitzgerald's passing); toured Great Britain with Nancy Griffith (also performing with Nanci in a BBC TV Special); made tours of Italy and North America; and composed the music and recorded the score for the new, original play "Spirit North." She also was honored with the 1998 Peacemaker Award from the War Resisters League; Guest Starred at Carnegie Hall, for "Sweet Honey In The Rock's 25th Anniversary Concert," at the "W.B. DuBois's 100th Birthday Celebration," and at "Paul Robeson's 100th Birthday Celebration." As a major performance highlight in her long career, she co-starred with Jewel, Judy Collins, Paula Cole, Janice Ian, Helen Reddy and Phoebe Snow, at Madison Square Garden's "Women In Music 1960 - 1999," while Rolling Stone Magazine reviewed her set, reporting, "ODETTA, arguably the only true legend in the house, was a stunner. It was almost unfair that she opened because it set a towering standard for the others to reach. The high point of her set was Mama and Papa Yancey's `Ain't It Hard Lord.' ODETTA rolled up her sleeves and, with one hand on her hip (accompanied by her pianist), got down to business. After fifty years of performing, ODETTA remains a glorious and spiritual force." And, Vanguard Records also released their CD compilation tribute to ODETTA in 1999, "ODETTA: Best of the Vanguard Years," which was reviewed in TIME OUT magazine, saying, "Easily the best singer of the folk movement, Odetta has been singing like a giant androgynous superhuman of African descent with a clinical case of the blues since the mid 1950s. Sort of a cross between Grace Jones and Maria Callas, only more so, Odetta can't sing `folk' at all because she doesn’t really sound like a person singing, let alone the person next door. She sounds more like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or the Nuremburg rally with different politics." In 1999, Homespun Tapes & Video released the instructional video ODETTA: Exploring Life, Music and Song…Hosted by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. And, the decade closed gloriously with MC Records' release of "BLUES EVERYWHERE I GO," its subsequent national & world tour and international radio and TV concert show appearances; her performance at the Blues Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Awards, at Hollywood’s House of Blues, celebrating "Salute to Women in Blues" (while sharing the stage with Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, Little Richard, Tracy Nelson and Shemekia Copeland); and finally with her being honored by President and Mrs. Clinton at the White House with the National Medal of Arts & Humanities.