A legend's legend
by Kate Conner-Ruben
It brings me up short to realize that I have been listening to Odetta, and in awe of Odetta, for forty years. Like many other baby boomers, I grew up with an Odetta record or two in the house. My favorite was the oddly titled Odetta and Larry. Larry Mohr was a nasal-voiced folksinger who somehow got to sing almost an entire record of duets with Odetta, who has a voice like a mountain. Her voice moved and terrified me, especially a signature sound she made in "Water Boy," a kind of cross between a scream and a cry of utter, thirsty despair. But although Odetta and Larry was a great record and I learned every word of every song, the coolest thing about it was that it was red. I mean, it was hold-it-up-to-the-window-and-watch-the light-shine-through red.
I first saw Odetta live about twenty years ago at the old Ark on Hill Street. Sitting there, waiting for her to come out, I felt palpably nervous. There are more than a few legends in American music, but Odetta is a legend's legend. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930 and raised and schooled in Los Angeles, Odetta began serious study of classical music and voice at age thirteen and dreamed of a career in opera. But an exposure to the richness of American folk music during the mid-1950s changed her path, and soon she was drawing crowds, which included Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, to her performances at New York's Blue Angel. Her 1950s and 1960s recordings of songs like "Kumbaya," "Goodnight, Irene," and "This Little Light of Mine" helped bring folk music into the mainstream and inspired generations. She marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, and sang for the masses at the 1963 March on Washington.
And so the butterflies were appropriate as the lights darkened and Odetta made her way up the aisle to the stage. She had burning sticks of incense stuck into
the headstock of her guitar and get this she wore a jewel in the center of her forehead. Oh, my. After blowing my mind before even starting to sing, Odetta proceeded to repeat the effect in a set that had flawless power rooted in every human emotion.
What a career this extraordinary performer has had. She's acted in films and on television and toured the world many times. At seventy-two, she continues to record and perform; her recent release, Lookin' for a Home, celebrates the music of Huddie Ledbetter, better known, of course, as Leadbelly. Once you adjust to the full-blown production (she's backed by an ace blues band), the old songs emerge fresh and new, and rendered timeless by Odetta's still miraculous voice. It's a great CD, even if it isn't red.
Odetta appears at the Ark in a double bill with Arlo Guthrie Wednesday and Thursday, March 26 and 27.
[Originally published in March, 2003.]