In November 1978, when Harvey Milk was vigorously fighting the passage of California’s Proposition 6, Odetta flew from New York to Los Angeles to headline a huge concert at the Greek Theatre in opposition to the initiative authored by Senator John V. Briggs that would have banned gays and lesbians from holding any position in California schools. Odetta felt strongly about gay rights and about Prop 6. “It’s a terrible precedent to set,” she explained backstage at the Greek Theatre. “If you allow it to happen to someone else it’s going to happen to you.” Referring to claims made by Anita Bryant and John Briggs about the Bible’s declaration that homosexuality is a crime, the singer said, “They are using the Bible for their own perverse needs for power and control. They use the Bible as a camouflage. I would say they are the enemies of religion.” Right on, Odetta.
Unlike most of her contemporaries, this incredible singer and activist got her start in musical theatre. In the late 1940s, when she was very young, Odetta appeared in the chorus of two touring Broadway shows that played Los Angeles, “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Guys and Dolls.” How I wish I could’ve seen those productions. After 1950, she concentrated mostly on folk music, appearing here often. One of her biggest early concerts in Los Angeles was in October 1956 at the beautiful Wilshire Ebell Theatre which is close to our house. Appearing with several other performers, Odetta got the best notices.
The most striking moments occurred during Odetta’s spirituals. She has a very low, darkly colored and naturally powerful voice which had persuasion and impact in such songs as “Deep River,” Maybe She Go,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your L’il Foot,” and others.
That same year, at the age of 25, Odetta’s first solo album was released, “Odetta Sings Balads and Blues.” Bob Dylan later cited it as a powerful influence and what made him focus on folk rather than rock n’roll. The liner notes for the album were enthusiastic but accurate.
A magnificent voice is here to sing the old songs. It belongs to a woman whom we believe to be the queen of American folksingers, the latest descendent of the line which gave birth to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the rightful heiress to Leadbelly’s legacy. Her name is Odetta, and like everything else about this remarkable personality, it is unusual.
When one first sees her, her size and height give rise to the uneasy feeling that she belongs to a race a cut above our own; but in her strong, haunting face there is a reassuring beauty and charm. In her normal speech her voice is quiet and delicate, but when she sings she can unleash a force that is startling. In her rendition of a number like Joshua, she displays a power and intensity that could well have tumbled the walls of Jericho, while a few minutes later her voice in Glory, Glory is more like the shuffling of angels’ feet.
In the early 1960s, the Hollywood Bowl offered folk song nights starring Odetta and other singers such as Theodore Bikel and Judy Collins. In 1964, the Los Angeles Times had this to say about Odetta’s performance at the Bowl:
Odetta was the first to step forward. Actually, Odetta is two people. One is a hard-driving, biting personality who invests work songs and blues with a power rare in her sex. The other Odetta is a soft-singing individual whose voice sometimes acquires the piping candor of a child and who slips into her material sly digs of humor that lend it a rare charm. The first Odetta came forth in a Bessie Smith blues called “Weeping Willow,” while the second manifested herself in a children’s song called “Sweet Potato.”
Odetta sure got around. I remember her playing often in Chicago when I was growing up, I know she gave frequent concerts in New York, and it seems like she was always appearing in Los Angeles for one cause or another.
I found several ads for benefits Odetta gave in the early 1970s for the local Jewish Community Centers here. This made me think of the symbiotic relationship African-Americans and Jews have always had for each other's causes. It also makes me think of one of Odetta’s contemporaries, someone who recorded with her on more than one occasion and who was one of my idols: folksinger Ella Jenkins who is still going strong at the age of 82. While Martin Luther King, Jr. dubbed Odetta the “Queen of American Folk Music,” Ella Jenkins was the indisputable “First Lady of Children’s Folk Music.”
While Jenkins has performed her music on all seven continents (even Antarctica!), has recorded dozens of albums for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, has sang for President, and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, we were lucky enough to call her our music teacher when we were kids at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in Chicago. We had no idea that our teacher was a world-renowned musician, we just knew we loved her and her call-and-response songs such as “Did You Feed My Cow,” “Miss Mary Mack,” “Oh My, I Want a Piece of Pie,” and many songs in Spanish, Hebrew, Swahili, and other languages. I think I was an adult when I first realized that “our” Ella Jenkins at our neighborhood JCC was “the” Ella Jenkins who was famous around the world.
Later, when I was working for Heinemann, I had the good fortune to work on a book with the charismatic (and crazy as a loon—in the best possible way) educator Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld who is a close friend of Ella's and often appears at teacher conferences with her. Meeting Miss Jenkins again was a thrill, and when she told me that she had just played a gig in downtown Chicago with my nephew Spencer’s band (I think he was eight at the time) and that she thought she was hearing Buddy Rich playing when she heard Spencer on the drums, I thought coming from her it was the greatest compliment a family member of mine will ever receive. I treasure this photo of me with Ella Jenkins and Leah at a concert in Chicago one summer a few years ago.
But back to Odetta. I couldn’t find any clips of her singing my favorite songs but here’s a short one of her at the Newport Folk Festival. Behold her power and grace.
I can’t think of a performer who was more influential to other singers. Joan Baez called Odetta a goddess. “Her passion moved me,” Baez said. “I learned everything she sang.” Janis Joplin spent her difficult teenage years listening to Odetta and she tried to imitate her when she first started singing. Harry Belafonte said Odetta was a key influence on his career. Maya Angelou said, “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.” And, as I mentioned above, Bob Dylan always credited Odetta with getting him interested in folk music. “I heard a record of hers, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” in a record store, back when you could listen to records in the store,” Dylan said. “Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson. That album was just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record.”
In August 1963, when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Odetta was at his side singing the beautiful song “I’m On My Way.” She was slated to perform the same song in Washington next month at Barack Obama’s Inauguration. What an incredibly moving bookend that would have been to her 1963 performance with Martin Luther King. Odetta campaigned fiercely for Obama and her name was one of the first he penciled in to perform at his Inauguration. It’s a shame she didn’t make it but I’m sure she will be there in one way or another singing her song with that clear, strong voice of hers that brought so many people together.
I’m on my way, I don’t want
to turn back
I’m on my way, I don’t want to turn back
I’m on my way, praise God, I’m on my way.