From: Wade Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Fri 06 Dec 2002 - 20:38:14 GMT
Working toward righteousness
Odetta, queen of '60s folk, is still singing with hope
By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff, 12/6/2002
Odetta doesn't listen to Eminem. She has yet to crack open the
new Christina Aguilera disc. And the folk singer whose music
spurred a young Robert Zimmerman to pick up an acoustic guitar
isn't interested in pushing a peace-and-love platform when she
plays the House of Blues Sunday night.
She is 71 now, a half-century removed from the innocence of the
'60s folk scene. She is no longer the girl with a guitar who believes her deep, melancholy voice can change the world.
''That was the biggest disappointment in my life, when I finally
figured out there was nothing I could do,'' she says, by phone
from New York. ''It just occurred to me that people have their
own ways of thinking because of the lives they've lived, and
there's nothing I could do to change them and sometimes very
little I could do to change me.''
She was born Odetta Gordon in Birmingham, Ala. At 6, her family
moved to Los Angeles, where she took singing lessons and, by her
19th birthday, landed a role in a production of ''Finian's
Rainbow.'' In the next few years, she would drop her last name
and capture the attention of Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte.
Her debut, ''Sings Ballads and Blues,'' came out in 1956.
(Rykodisc rereleased the album in September as part of ''The Tradition Masters.'')
''The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was
Odetta,'' Bob Dylan told Playboy in 1978. ''I heard a record of
hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records
right there in the store. That was in '58 or something like
that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric
guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top
Odetta cut a striking figure in those days. This was a decade
before the arrival of the folk protest movement and here she
was, a black woman with a close-cropped Afro and a seemingly
endless catalog of folk songs. She sang ''John Henry'' and ''If
I Had a Hammer,'' songs that would become national anthems of
the oncoming folk revival. It was during the '60s that Odetta's
audience grew. She released more than a dozen albums and played
Carnegie Hall. She still plays those traditional standards. Her
2001 release, ''Looking for a Home,'' was an album of Leadbelly
''Whether I'm singing in the area of folk or blues or spiritual,
I am a mirror in front of this audience,'' Odetta says. ''And
they look into that mirror and they get a sense of the history
and the strength of the people they have come from.''
It's almost a positive outlook, except when she's asked to talk
about society. That's when Odetta begins to break it down into
''us'' vs. ''them.'' They, she says, are the folks in power: the police, the government, corporate executives. We are the rest, the ''people who only have power over our own selves.''
''Do you notice that they're taking away medicine from the
oldsters, education from the youngsters,'' Odetta says. ''No
more music, sports no more. Those were the two areas where
students could develop their own selves and not just mimic what
they put on their test papers.''
She also isn't pleased with the developments in the courts,
where affirmative action is debated, or Washington, where wars
''The world is in serious trouble,'' she says. ''We already know
that Bush is headed for a war. It doesn't really matter what
those weapons finders are finding or not finding. He has not
heard of negotiations and we are expendable commodities.''
One thing Odetta doesn't follow is the music charts. She listens
to WBAI, an affiliate of the left-leaning Pacifica Radio network.
''Occasionally I'm someplace and I hear what's on the radio and
whatever they've decided to put on the radio does not make me
curious at all about what they're doing for the teenagers,''
Odetta says. ''I feel such sympathy for these young ladies who
feel they have to strip in order to be noticed. Again, I see
people who are put there in front who have no talent whatsoever.
We have young people too who are full of talent but they don't
happen to have the look.''
Odetta won't say what she'll play at the House of Blues, but she
might throw in a spiritual or two, knowing that it's almost
Christmas. Even if she has lost much of her innocence, she says
that she refuses to give up hope.
''I have to be positive or you just have to give up and shoot
yourself,'' Odetta says. ''I can't give it up to the bastards. I
have to think that I'm not the only one who is working toward
righteousness and the good and I can join forces with others who
are the same.''
Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story ran on page E14 of the Boston Globe on 12/6/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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