The name might not ring a bell for you, but along with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, the one-named singer — who passed away Tuesday of heart disease at the age of 77 — was one of the giants of the folk world. Her deep, haunting tones made her one of the voices of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.
Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 31, 1930, at the height of the Depression, the singer’s musical style was formed by the prison and work songs of the era recorded in the fields of the Deep South, according to a New York Times obituary. “They were liberation songs,” she told the paper in 2007. “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road, and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life.”
After moving to Los Angeles with her mother in 1937 following her father’s death, the young singer discovered her voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music, eventually earning a classical-music degree from Los Angeles City College.
Performing everywhere from small coffeehouses to Carnegie Hall, Odetta’s landmark albums of blues and ballads influenced everyone from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to blues-rock belter Janis Joplin. But it was her rendition of the slavery-age song “O Freedom” performed at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in August 1963 that cemented her status as one of the musical touchstones of the civil-rights movement. The Times said that Rosa Parks, who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by famously refusing to give up her seat, was asked once which songs meant the most to her and she answered, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”
She was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities in 1999 by President Bill Clinton, was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2004 and was reportedly hoping to sing at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20.