FWD: from a folksinger

From: Wade Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Fri 06 Dec 2002 - 20:38:14 GMT

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    Working toward righteousness

    Odetta, queen of '60s folk, is still singing with hope

    By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff, 12/6/2002

    http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/340/living/Working_toward_righteousnessP. shtml

    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 Gibson.''

    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 covers.

    ''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 are plotted.

    ''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 gedgers@globe.com

    This story ran on page E14 of the Boston Globe on 12/6/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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