Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Folk Legend Odetta Dies at 77

(Odetta at the 1963 March on Washington)

In the movie "Hairspray" when Pia Zadora said, "Hey cats, let's put on Odetta and iron our hair," I got the joke because like a majority of people my age, I knew who Odetta was but never owned any of her tracks or listened to her. A folk star in the 1950s, Bob Dylan as well as Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez claim Odetta as an influence. She's probably best known in the US for her performance at the March on Washington in 1963. Odetta was a living legend but, like most true living legends, she wasn't played on the radio or spanned across age groups much these days. However, she was still performing up until November when she was hospitalized for heart disease. She was a big fan of Obama and was to sing at Obama's Inauguration, something utterly appropriate given Odetta's work for the civil rights cause, and this opportunity was the reason her manager believed she was still alive. Sadly, Odetta died yesterday of her heart disease at the age of 77.

NPR ran a piece on her this morning, including an interview with her from a few years back. The interviewer and Odetta were talking about songs, including "Amazing Grace," and the interviewer asked if she would do him the honor of singing a verse a capella, which she did. You know how sometimes the sound of a distinctive singer can pop a million adjectives in your head simultaneously? How sometimes a voice has that certain something to it that strikes your deepest core? THAT was this single verse of "Amazing Grace" by Odetta, I'm not kidding. It's not at all surprising that her voice was deemed the "voice of the Civil Rights Movement" because it was this rich buttery amalgam of sadness and longing, of tenacity and pluck, of hope, of joy. And paired with that song especially, that voice made you truly believe in the pristine goodness of man, if only for a moment.

I couldn't locate a proper mp3 of it a capella but you can go listen to it here.

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