Odetta Sings

Photo by Judy Harter — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

To mark the passing of Odetta, one of our world’s most remarkable voices of passion, beauty and justice, we present a special remembrance.

Jonathan Secor is Director of Special Programs at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has also worked at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, while at the same time running his own production company. Jonathan, who co-created Songs of the Spirit, produced Odetta’s last live performance.

Children Go Where I send thee…
Ain’t no Grave Gonnna Hold my Body down…

This is the arc of Odetta for me.

On December 2nd, 2008 this world lost a powerful force. A woman whose voice and whose will changed lives and laws. A woman who could fill your heart with desire to do good, break your heart with the knowledge that there is bad and paint a picture so vivid that you could see, taste and feel exactly what she was singing about. Her physical presence in this world will be missed, but she leaves us a legacy of music to live by and a model for how one can.

At an early age I had the pleasure of getting to know Odetta’s music, and at a later age (for both of us) I had the pleasure and the privilege of getting to know Odetta. Both my parents were huge fans, taking my sister and I to see her whenever she was at Tanglewood. Odetta records were played constantly, in particular at Christmas time and my mother’s singing of black spirituals as lullabies always were sung in Odetta’s voice and style. It would not be Christmas day without hearing Odetta’s voice sending the “children two by two” as she told the children to go where she sent them.

Odetta was the prototype of the activist performer, the predecessor of the Bruce Springsteens and the Bonos whose mission is not just to entertain, but to use one’s talents to effect change, change in particular for the less fortunate. And of Odetta I would say, that like Pete Seeger, it was at the cost of ever becoming a true commercial success. But Odetta was a believer, a believer that we are inherently good people and that one, through one’s words and actions could effect change. I am so very happy that she lived long enough to see a black man win the support of the people to sit in that very white house.

That is not to say that she was not a showman. Odetta gave one helluva performance. She knew how to wrap you around her finger and take you wherever SHE wanted you to go. And in her last years of performing, when she was wheel chair bond and had to change her phrasing and singing style to accommodate emphysema from too many years of smoking — she still had that power. For Tina Turner the power may be in the legs, for Odetta it has always been in the voice.

Odetta needed to, and had earned the right to, hold center stage and have the last word. While at MASS MoCA we booked Odetta to be part of an evening of political music headlined by Steve Earle. Carl Hancock Rux was opener number one, giving a great though mildly incomprehensible performance. Odetta was opener number two. Odetta on a stool with a piano player. Within minutes of being on stage the audience was hers. I felt pity for Steve Earle, for though he gave a great set he never could reclaim that stage for his own.

I did not learn from that mistake, at least not yet. A few years later, when producing Songs of the Spirit at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I once again booked Odetta, and once again did not have the sense to let her have the last word. A last minute addition of Meshell N’dgecello to the line up had convinced us to push Odetta forward so Meshell could close the evening. Again when Odetta came out, wheeled to the stage but still able to stand and walk to center stage, the thousands in the Cathedral leapt to their feet. And she had them on her feet for her entire set. The love was evident. Yes, I pitied Meshell for following.

The last time I had the privilege of working with Odetta I knew not to do anything but let her close the show. So even though we had some eighty-eight performers on tour with Songs of the Spirit, including the great Hugh Masekala, we made sure that we ended every performance with Odetta’s set. Every night on tour Hugh Masekala would finish his set, and introduce the great “Mama” Odetta. She would be wheeled out, looking old and frail, seemingly not capable of producing much of anything, let alone to follow the trumpet and power of the great musican and activist that is Hugh Masekala. But no. The audience, no matter what city we were in, always got to their feet with a standing ovation before she sang a note. And Odetta would come to live. Out of that wheelchair, out of the beaten body would come this voice that filled the void, the void in the room, the void in our hearts. And with Hugh backing her up in trumpet she would sing “Ain’t no grave, gonna hold this body down”. And you knew, as I know now - Ain’t no grave gonna hold Odetta down. Not then. Not now.

- Jonathan Secor

An Odetta sampler:

  • The Midnight Special — video
  • At the Newport Folk Festival — video
  • At the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Benefit — video
  • Odetta and Ruby Dee — video
  • Odetta on Activism — video
  • Keep on Movin’ It On — video
  • Glory Halleluja — video
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2 Responses to “Odetta Sings”

  1. » Odetta Sings White House On Best Political Blogs: News And Info On White House
    December 8th, 2008 01:59

    [...] Sings Posted in December 7th, 2008 by in Uncategorized Odetta Sings I am so very happy that she lived long enough to see a black man win the support of the people tosit in that very white house. That is not to say that she was not a showman. Odetta gave one helluva performance. … [...]

  2. KadmusArts Playlists » Blog Archive » Six Sad Farewells
    December 30th, 2008 16:02

    [...] Many musical artists sadly passed from the scene in 2008. A motive for particular regret in the case of six of them is that they were genre-definers in their own musical styles, endlessly generous with other artists in sharing their musical experience, and active performers right up until the end of their lives. We have already featured the work of one of them — Odetta — extensively in an earlier blog post. Here is a small tribute to the other five: [...]

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