Monday, December 8, 2008

Odetta: Queen Mother






When I first met Civil Rights legend Odetta, she was stunning at age 75. The folk singer with the powerful voice who moved audiences and influenced fellow musicians for a half-century, needed a wheel-chair to get around, but only to the rear of the stage. When she performed for the 100th Anniversary commemoration of the Niagara Movement meeting in Harpers Ferry, W.V. in mid-August 2006, she walked on and off the stage. She would not let her audience see her in her wheelchair. Odetta joined the ancestors Dec. 2, 2008. She was 77.


Born Odetta Holmes, she died of heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure about three weeks earlier. In spite of failing health that caused her to use a wheelchair, Odetta performed 60 concerts in the last two years, singing for 90 minutes at a time. Her singing ability never diminished. That's the way she was when I met Odetta.


With her booming, classically trained voice and spare guitar, Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites. She first came to prominence in the 1950s and later influenced Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other well known singers. When Rosa Parks was asked once which songs meant the most to her, she replied, "All of the songs Odetta sings."