Odetta, who will turn 76 this New Year’s Eve, sang at the March on Washington in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King. And when Rosa Parks was asked by her biographer which songs of the civil rights movement mattered most to her, she reportedly said, “Essentially, all the songs Odetta sings.” She performs Thursday, December 14, at the Patriots Theater in Trenton.
Although she’s commonly referred to as a folk singer, Odetta has always been steeped in the blues and gospel music. But Odetta will tell you, blues and gospel are folk music too. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta Holmes was raised in Los Angeles. She began singing at a young age but didn’t pick up the guitar until she was in San Francisco, where her first professional gig was at the Tin Angel.
“When I was growing up, on the radio we heard gospel music, popular music and we heard classic rhythm and blues. We heard the Metropolitan Opera from New York on Saturday afternoons and we heard the Grand Ol’ Opry from Nashville, too,” she says in a phone interview from her New York apartment. “I’ve been influenced by a very wide stroke of some very good music, unlike today, when you can find programs that repeat everybody else’s program and these kids don’t really end up with a choice. I grew up with some magnificent nurturing as far as depth and breadth of the music is concerned.” For that, she’s grateful, she says.
“I grew 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 says. Later had the chance to see and hear great singers like Nat “King” Cole and his trio and other small groups. “I’m sure I’ve never heard, including up to today, a person who I haven’t learned from but my heroes were Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. Then a lot of other people put stuff into me.”
She says Robeson, born in Princeton and one of Rutgers’ most famous graduates, “is really a hero of mine. He taught me that it’s not only possible but necessary to be responsible to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.”
The list of people Odetta has inspired and influenced reads like a who’s who of popular, blues, and folk music: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the late Dave Van Ronk and Janis Joplin, among others. Dylan reportedly said he traded in his electric guitar in 1956 after hearing an Odetta album. (Of course, he later switched back to an electric sound with a band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966.) Dylan said of Odetta’s first record, “I learned all the songs on that record, her first album, and the songs were ‘Mule Skinner,’ ‘Jack of Diamonds,’ ‘Water Boy,’ and ‘Buked and Scorned.’”
Says Odetta: “I was in show business for two weeks when Herbert Jacoby, who owned the Blue Angel in New York, invited me to come to the club for two weeks.” The residency launched her career; influential singers like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte came back to hear her during her first visit to New York.
She moved to New York in the 1960s, after the folk music renaissance had begun. “I was living in Chicago and there was all this talk about recording, and all the recording studios were in New York. And at that time there was a lot of traveling to college campuses, many of them on the East coast.” She liked New York, she says, “because when I wasn’t on the road, I could go hear some live music and go home happy as a lark.”
Her latest album, a live recording, “Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays,” was recorded at Fordham University in New York and released last November in time for the 2005 Christmas season on M.C. Records, a Long Island-based independent record label. The album includes contributions by her longtime pianist, Seth Farber, as well as the Holmes Brothers, a gospel-blues trio from Virginia. In addition to the title track, songs include “Rise Up Shepherd,” “Mary Had a Baby,” “Shout for Joy,” “Virgin Mary Had One Son,” “Poor Little Jesus,” and “What Month Was Jesus Born In?” The audience at her show in Trenton can expect an artful blend of seasonal, holiday folk songs from the album as well some blues and traditional folk songs.
She says she is pleased with the results of the new album. “Doing a live album has more vitality. Human beings have language skills other than just verbal: we read each other. When performing there is true communication. I get energy from the audience and they get energy from me. We are really doing the concert together, which is very different from a dry studio, where it’s just you and a microphone.”
She says the songs on “Gonna Let It Shine” “come out of difficult times, and since the difficult times haven’t been fixed, the songs are still here for us.”
Odetta, Thursday, December 14, 7 p.m., Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Dubbed the “Queen of American folk music” by Martin Luther King, Jr, Odetta, 75, recently released “Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays.” $35. 609-984-8400.