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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 17, 1999. All rights reserved.
Odetta’s Timeless Music
by Richard J. Skelly
Two summers ago, midway through her set at the annual
Clearwater Festival at Sandy Hook, folksinger Odetta had the audience
enthralled with some tune that involved subtle, feathery guitar strumming
and light, higher register vocals. Suddenly, from yonder arise, a
jet began noisily making its descent to Kennedy Airport.
"I’m just going to stop and let that thing pass by," Odetta
said, smiling, and pointing skyward. She waited the minute in complete
silence, other than the jet noise, then resumed her set, taking her
audience on a musical journey with traditional folk songs and blues
from the south. When she was done, she got a standing ovation.
Such poise and dignity on stage is typical for Odetta, and it’s part
of what makes Odetta Odetta. At another show, some years ago in Princeton,
possibly a January "Concert For Peace," as I recall, Odetta
lit some incense, then calmly told the photographers in the audience
that they were welcome to take photos of her "on my first tune
only, please." Although she’s basically a nice lady, she does
have some rough edges, well she should, for the business of being
a folksinger hasn’t gotten any easier over the years.
Now 68 and headed for a performance at the Unitarian Church in Titusville
on Saturday, November 20, Odetta also has a new album out, her first
in 14 years. Titled "Blues Everywhere I Go," on the M.C. Records
label, it’s a magnificent album, with great accompaniment from the
likes of Dr. John on piano and "Late Night With Conan O’Brien"
guitarist Jimmy Vivino. But her voice is always at the forefront,
as it should be. After all, Odetta’s career as a folk singer pre-dates
"I don’t travel with a band or a pianist," she says, in an
interview from her New York apartment, "and there are a couple
of tunes I’ve done before, but the producer, Mark Carpentieri, wanted
to stay away from tunes that I had recorded before."
Asked to explain her suave, dignified manner on-stage, and her earliest
inklings of where she picked it up, Odetta is unsure of what I’m talking
about. How did she learn the business of performing, I ask. She’s
like Ruth Brown, I explain, suave and dignified, always aware of her
every move and always knowing what, if anything, to say in between
"I’m not sure I know the business, to tell you the truth. I was
fashioned and formed about the same time that Ruth Brown was being
fashioned and formed," she explains. Born Odetta Gordon on December
31, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama, she grew up in Los Angeles. "I
came up at the end of the big band era, when Daddy would take us each
week to the black theater, and we would hear the big bands," she
recalls. "Then, as it became too costly for the big bands to be
traveling, we were around for the Nat King Cole Trio. I had some good
music put into me. And on the radio, we had the classical music station
and on Saturday afternoons we had the `Metropolitan Opera’ coming
from New York. Then on Saturday night, we had the `Grand Ol’ Opry’
coming from Nashville," she explains. Pressed further about who
she learned from in Los Angeles and later, San Francisco, Odetta was
"I’m sure I’ve never heard, including today, a person who I haven’t
learned from," she says, "but my heroes are Marian Anderson,
a classical voice, contralto, black woman, and then, Paul Robeson,"
she continues, "but then, a lot of other people put stuff into
me," she says, chuckling.
As a teen, she picked up the guitar and began singing. "When I
began playing and singing folk songs, I was amazed at how much I remembered
hearing people and songs from `The Grand Ol’ Opry,’ when I thought
I was not even listening to `The Grand Ol’ Opry,’" she recalls.
Her first professional gig, Odetta recalls, was in San Francisco,
in the early 1950s. "We hadn’t gotten to coffee houses yet,"
she cautions. "There was something going around in this country,
not only among club owners, but the audiences, too, and that was curiosity,"
she says. "There was nobody making up anybody’s mind about what
was Top 10."
Her first professional gig was at the Tin Angel in San Francisco,
she recalls, "and I was in show business two weeks, when Herbert
Jacoby, who owned the Blue Angel here in New York, invited me to come
to the Blue Angel for two weeks." After her residency at a club
in the media center of New York, her career as a performer was launched.
This September Odetta was at the White House, where she received a
National Medal of Arts from President and Mrs. Clinton. "It involved
just standing and shaking hands, and sitting and eating and receiving
the award," she explains. Other recipients included Aretha Franklin
and playwright August Wilson. "It was high tension at first,"
she adds, "but then both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were much at ease,
so that helped the evening to be comfortable."
Despite her talents as a vocalist and guitarist, Odetta
is not one of the great folk song writers of all time, and that has
more to do with her sense of honoring her roots than any lack of ability,
since her career has encompassed acting roles in Shakespeare as well
as gigs as a commencement speaker, at the Portland School of the Arts
in Maine and other educational institutions.
"There are times when a song has come through the ether to me,
but I’m still a little bit self-conscious about writing," she
admits, "I adore the way that Joni Mitchell writes, she just puts
it all out on the table and it’s a catharsis and she doesn’t have
to worry about that anymore, but I’m not there emotionally," she
says, with a laugh.
Among her classic albums are "Odetta and The Blues" on Riverside,
which may not yet have been reissued on compact disc, and two that
are available on CD from Welk Music Group, "One Grain of Sand"
and "The Essential Odetta," a double album. Both of these
were recorded for Vanguard Records at that label’s old studios on
West 23rd Street in New York.
Odetta moved to New York in the 1960s, she says, and recalls it was
after the folk music boom had started to happen.
"I was living in Chicago and there was this whole thing about
recording, all the recording studios were here," she recalls,
"and at that time there was a lot of traveling to college campuses,
many of them situated on the East coast," she adds. "Plus,
when I wasn’t on the road, I could go to some place and hear live
music and go home happy as a lark."
When it’s brought to her attention that this is what David Amram calls
"hangout-ology," she adds, "that’s how we all learn."
If anyone knows the art of "hangoutology," it is surely Odetta,
who has been an influence on Marcia Ball, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk,
David Amram, and literally dozens of other prominent musicians. How
does she feel about all this?
"I feel really wonderful about it, and it’s something that I’ve
been told, you know. And whatever it is that I do, if a younger one
comes along and can take heart and focus on giving what it is that
they have to give — if what I do helps somebody else do that —
then that is gravy, because that is something I could not have decided
for anybody. I’ve always said it makes me feel beyond luxury tax,
it makes me feel necessary."
The audience at her show in Titusville can expect an artful blend
of blues and traditional folk songs, timeless songs that have been
around for years, items like Leadbelly’s "Midnight Special"
and "Careless Love," Pete Seeger’s "If I Had A Hammer,"
perhaps Percy Mayfield’s blues, "Please Send Me Someone To Love"
(a prayer for peace), and Dink Johnson’s "Dink’s Blues."
When you’re talking about Odetta’s music, it’s unfair to call her
an interpreter, since she incorporates clever arrangements to make
many of these traditional songs her own. "I don’t know what I’ll
be doing at the show in Titusville," she adds, "I don’t know
if they asked for the blues or the folk singer," she says, chuckling.
"But it’s a continuation of a tradition. The two are cousins."
— Richard J. Skelly
Church, 268 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, 215-862-1917.
Opening: Dave’s True Story. $20. Saturday, November 20, 8 p.m.
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