December 3, 2008 in Nation/World

Influential singer Odetta, 77, dies of heart disease

By Randy Lewis and Mike Boehm Los Angeles Times
Stuart Ramson photo

(Full-size photo)

Odetta, the classically trained folk, blues and gospel singer who used her powerfully rich and dusky voice to champion African-American music and civil rights issues for more than half a century starting in the folk revival of the 1950s, has died. She was 77.

She was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City for a checkup in mid-November but went into kidney failure. She died there Tuesday of heart disease.

With a repertoire that included 19th century slave songs and spirituals as well as the topical ballads of such 20th century folk icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Odetta became one of the most beloved figures in folk music.

She was said to have influenced the emergence of artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman.

“The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” Dylan once said. “From Odetta, I went to Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, little by little uncovering more as I went along.”

Her affinity for traditional African-American folk songs was a hallmark of her long career, along with a voice that could easily sweep from dark, husky low notes to delicate yet goose bump-inducing high register tones.

“The first time I heard Odetta sing,” Seeger once said, “she sang Leadbelly’s ‘Take This Hammer,’ and I went and told her how I wish Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her.”

She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930. Her father died when she was young, and she moved to Los Angeles at age 6 with her mother, sister and stepfather. She took the surname of her stepfather Zadock Felious, but throughout her career she used just her given name.

Odetta was a fixture on the folk music scene by the time the genre’s commercial boom came in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

She played at the Newport Folk Festival, the showcase event for folk music, four times between 1959 and 1965. She also had a recording contract with Vanguard Records, which at the height of the folk music craze was the genre’s leading label.

Over the years, Odetta branched into acting, with dramatic and singing roles in film and television, including “Cinerama Holiday,” “Sanctuary” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

But traditional folk music remained her forte.

“The folk repertoire is our inheritance. Don’t have to like it, but we need to hear it,” she said.

In 1999, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. In 2004, she was a Kennedy Center honoree. A year later, the Library of Congress honored her with its Living Legend Award.

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