The influential folk and blues singer Odetta died on December 2 of last year. On Thursday, April 9, the singer and activist’s life and music will be celebrated in words and song in a tribute concert at Richardson.
Among the performers are the ultra-talented musician, actor, producer and impresario Guy Davis, and his mother, actress Ruby Dee, as well as poet Sonia Sanchez and folk-blues-rock singer Toshi Reagon and her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a folk musician.
Toshi Reagon says in a phone interview from a tour stop in New Orleans, where she was opening for Ani DiFranco at the House of Blues last week, that she grew up with Odetta’s music. “My first impression of Odetta was hearing her music, her recordings on the stereo,” Reagon says. DiFranco’s Buffalo, N.Y.-based independent record company, Righteous Babe Records, has released several of Reagon’s recordings, which run the gamut from contemporary folk and blues to rock ‘n’ roll tunes with her band, Big Lovely.
“Her voice was amazing,” Reagon says, “and her interpretations of songs that belong to all of us — she made lasting interpretations of these songs. The first time I can remember meeting her was at a festival in California. “We were at the same hotel, this was about 15 or 16 years ago, and I had lunch with her, which was really great. Just sitting around talking and picking up her opinions on everything. Anytime since then, she was always really wonderful to me and would always give me a moment with her.”
Reagon’s website, www.toshireagon.com, has a video clip of Reagon’s last conversation with Odetta. “The last show I did with her was last year with Pete Seeger, a Clearwater benefit, and I was being followed by a camera crew for a documentary they were making on me, so I asked her if it was alright if they film us,” she says.
Reagon was raised in a socially conscious, activist family, the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Reagon of the Freedom Singers. Her parents split up when she was a child, and her father died in 1996. Young Toshi Reagon was raised in Washington, D.C., and then moved to New York City to pursue her career as a musician. She sings, plays guitar, bass, and drums.
Growing up in Washington, Reagon says her influences included her mom, Odetta, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Parliament Funkadelic, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, “and any music I’ve come across at millions of folk festivals I’ve been to since I was a baby, so I knew I had a big chance to do anything that I wanted, having been exposed to all that good music.”
The April 9 musical tribute to Odetta is organized by Princeton University’s Center for African-American Studies, the Program in American Studies, and the departments of history, music, and religion, among other departments at the university.
Reagon says she will perform four tunes popularized or connected with Odetta and her mother. (Reagon, who makes frequent club performances in New York, will also perform on Sunday, May 3, at Madison Square Garden at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party.)
“Her New York memorial service was very moving,” Reagon says of the February 24 service at Riverside Church in Harlem, which this writer also attended. “It was a massive outpouring of love for this woman. But I feel I’ve always carried people like Odetta with me in my work and I always will. Everything I do is a reflection of those people like her and I still feel very connected to her.”
In attendance at the Harlem service was Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Steve Earle, David Amram, Guy Davis, Maya Angelou, the Holmes Brothers, Maria Muldaur, Sweet Honey in the Rock and others, along with a crowd of more than a thousand Odetta fans, to pay tribute to a shy, quiet, dignified lady.
Born in Alabama in 1930 and raised in southern California, Odetta got started singing folk songs, blues, work songs, and ballads in San Francisco in the 1950s, then made her way to New York. Bob Dylan cited her early recordings as having a major impact on him. And it was Odetta who drove the car to take a young Joan Baez to her first Newport Folk Festival.
Her voice was powerful and booming, right up until her last days in the spotlight. She has a number of excellent late career recordings out on the Long Island-based blues label, M.C. Records. Unfortunately, a hip fracture a few years ago sidelined her career for a time, but she made a full recovery and got out on the road in 2007 and performed while seated much of the time. She appeared at Concerts at the Crossing in Titusville in May, 2008.
She sang simple folk songs and blues much of the time, but she made these tunes — some very familiar like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and others less well-known, like Leadbelly’s “Jim Crow Blues” — into high art, with just her guitar and voice. In later years, she preferred to work with just a piano player and did not play as much guitar as she once did.
At the Odetta service in Harlem, Maya Angelou read a poem she’d written for Odetta and recalled her earliest days hanging out with the blues and folk singer in San Francisco, 54 years ago. “We were both tall black ladies with an attitude, and most people were really scared of us,” Angelou says, recalling the beginnings of the civil rights movement that followed in the 1960s. “She sang the old songs and showed us the simplicity and beauty in them.”
Having interviewed her three times and having spent time with her on several occasions, I have my own memories of Odetta. When I first met her at David Amram’s birthday party at the old Birdland jazz club on 105th Street in New York in November, 1990, she gave me her address and phone number. She cautioned: “Now, this is not for publication, baby.”
Once, at the Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater Festival at Sandy Hook in the early 1990s, Odetta was about to launch into a quieter folk ballad when, from yonder, came a low flying jet into Kennedy Airport. She looked skyward, smiled, used a “cut” gesture across her neck and pointed upward with her finger while waiting for the jet and its resulting noise to subside.
Another time there was a function to raise money for a charitable program run by the House of Blues club chain, held in lower Manhattan’s World Financial Center. I went to New York with jazz balladeer Jimmy Scott, who then lived in East Orange. Isaac Tigrett, founder of the House of Blues/ Hard Rock chain of clubs was there, and he was in awe, delighted to meet Scott. Odetta was similarly elated, though their paths had crossed before. When we left, she gave me such a big strong hug, I remember thinking, she may be getting older, but she’s still a powerful person and performer.
A Tribute to Odetta, Princeton University, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, April 9, 8:30 p.m. Concert in conjunction with “Odetta, Folk Music, and Social Activism” features Matthew Frye Jacobson, Geoffrey Holder, Lizz Wright, Ruby Dee, Guy Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Toshi Reagon. Register. Free. 609-258-5000 or www.princeton.edu.
Also, Panel Discussion on Odetta, Princeton University, McCosh 10. Thursday, April 9, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. “Odetta, Folk Music, and Social Activism” panel discussion with Bernice Johnson Reagon, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Oscar Brand, Olivia Greer, Albert J. Raboteau, and Judith Casselberry. Moderated by Judith Weisenfeld. Register. Free. In conjunction with concert at 8:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. 609-258-5000 or www.princeton.edu.