US civil rights singer Odetta dies

This is a music video of Odetta. Live in concert 2005, singing “House of the Rising Sun”.

From the International Herald Tribune:

Odetta, voice of American civil rights movement, dies at 77

By Tim Weiner

Published: December 3, 2008

Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died Tuesday. She was 77.

The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager.

He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama‘s inauguration.

Odetta — she was born Odetta Holmes — sang at coffeehouses and Carnegie Hall and released several albums, becoming one of the most widely known and influential folk-music artists of the 1950s and 60s.

Her voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white images of the freedom marchers who walked the roads of Alabama and Mississippi and the boulevards of Washington in quest of an end to racial discrimination.

Rosa Parks, the woman who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, was once asked which songs meant the most to her. She replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”

Odetta sang at the August 1963 march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Her song that day was “O Freedom,” dating back to slavery days.

Born in Birmingham on Dec. 31, 1930, Odetta Holmes spent her first six years in the depths of the Depression. The music of that time and place — in particular prison song and work songs recorded in the fields of the deep South — shaped her life.

“They were liberation songs,” she said in a videotaped interview with The New York Times in 2007, for its online feature “The Last Word.” “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.”

Her father, Reuben Holmes, died when she was young; she and her mother, Flora Sanders, who later remarried, moved to Los Angeles in 1937. Three years later, Odetta discovered she could sing. …

“The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta”, Bob Dylan said, referring to that record, in a 1978 interview with Playboy. He said he heard “something vital and personal. 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”.

Her blues and spirituals led directly to her work for the civil rights movement. They were two rivers running together, she said in her interview with The Times. The words and music captured “the fury and frustration that I had growing up.” They were heard by the people who were present at the creation of the civil rights movement, people who “heard on the grapevine about this lady who was singing these songs.” She played countless benefits; the money she raised underwrote the work of keeping the movement alive.

Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and performed for President John F. Kennedy. But after King was assassinated in 1968, the wind went out of the sails of the civil-rights movement and the songs of protest and resistance that had been the movement’s soundtrack. Odetta’s fame flagged for years thereafter. She recorded fewer records, although she performed on stage as a singer and an actor, during the 1970s and 1980s. She revived her career in the 1990s, and thereafter appeared regularly on “A Prairie Home Companion,” the popular public-radio show. In 1999 she recorded her first album in 14 years, and that year President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities from. In 2003 she received a “Living Legend” tribute from the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center Visionary Award. …

In April 2007, half a century after Dylan heard her, she was onstage at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce Springsteen. She turned one of his songs, “57 Channels”, into a chanted poem, and Springsteen came out from the wings to call it “the greatest version” of the song he had ever heard.

Odetta interview: here.

Odetta lyrics: here.

Carly Simon on Odetta: here.

The deaths of singers Miriam Makeba and Odetta: here.

17 thoughts on “US civil rights singer Odetta dies

  1. Dec 11, 8:03 PM EST

    2 suspects indicted in East Texas dragging death

    Associated Press Writer

    DALLAS (AP) — An East Texas grand jury indicted two white men Thursday in the racially charged hit-and-run death of a black man who was dragged beneath a pickup truck.

    Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley are charged with the murder of 24-year-old Brandon McClelland, whose mangled body was found Sept. 16 on a country road.

    Finley faces an additional charge of tampering with physical evidence for allegedly trying to wash blood and “biological material” from his truck, according to the indictment. Crostley faces an additional charge of retaliation for allegedly threatening a potential witness in a phone call before he was arrested.

    The two men, both 27, are being held at the Lamar County Jail. Their attorneys did not immediately respond to phone messages left by The Associated Press.

    Authorities say the two suspects intentionally ran over and killed McClelland following an argument during a late-night beer run. McClelland’s body was caught beneath the truck and dragged about 70 feet.

    To some, the case stirs memories of the notorious dragging death of James Byrd by white supremacists 10 years ago in the East Texas town of Jasper.

    But authorities maintain McClelland’s death was not racially motivated, a stance that has angered the victim’s family and activists.



    In an era of petitioning our grievances via email, it is hard to remember that people have, in the past, put their lives on the line for justice in America. They changed the course of the US by making history, not by expecting politicians to do it for them.

    That is the magnificently inspiring story of the documentary “Freedom Riders” directed by Stanley Nelson. “Freedom Riders” tells a complex political story about a simple goal: desegregating interstate buses and bus stations in the deep South.

    Blacks and whites from around the United States signed their last wills and testaments 50 years ago this past May to board segregated Greyhound and Trailway buses through Alabama and Mississippi. All they traveled with was their moral authority, because the federal government wouldn’t – for days – protect them from attempts to burn them to death in a bus, brutal beatings, arrests and nearly deadly attacks by mobs.

    The Kennedy brothers, both the president and attorney general, didn’t want to alienate what was then still the Democratic segregationist South. The Freedom Riders were an annoyance to them, and they worked through Martin Luther King, among others, to try and discourage the “agitators” from “stirring up” the racist white thugs, KKK and hostile police departments.

    But the Freedom Riders rode on, greeted by lead pipes and Molotov cocktails. As one group would give up, more would follow, led – at a crucial point – by a young female student from Fisk University who taught the president of the United States and his attorney general the meaning of justice enshrined in our Constitution.

    The power of the Freedom Riders came from their conviction and their determination – black and white – to be willing to die for a cause greater than themselves: the equality of all men and women in the United States.

    In the end, after horrifying violence and imprisonment that affected around 400 Freedom Rider volunteers from across America, Robert F. Kennedy (on behalf of the president) reluctantly relented and had a regulation implemented that banned segregation on interstate bus lines and in bus station waiting rooms.

    Anyone who wants to see how a relatively small group of committed people can force the president of the United States to take a stand on behalf of justice should see this documentary.

    You can obtain it with a contribution to Truthout and BuzzFlash at Truthout by clicking here.

    Mark Karlin
    Editor, BuzzFlash at Truthout


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