A true spirit of folk and blues - Odetta Holmes channelled (and interpreted) the southern African-American cultural legacy that gave birth to the majority of transatlantic blues, folk and rock.
Known for her ethereal yet deeply earthy meditations on the human condition, Odetta was raised in Birmingham, Alabama in the aftermath of the Great American Depression of the 1930’s.
Growing up early experiences of racism would wound her in ways that made liberation and civil rights activism an essential theme in her music and personal life. Martin Luther King described her as “The Queen of American Folk music,” after they marched together on a number political protests in the sixties. Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan each hail her as a profound influence upon their own music and throughout the 60's Odetta released over 16 albums, exploring gospel, blues, jazz and folk traditions.
She would perform at numerous festivals including the Newport folk festival and a number of live recording sessions, including the Bitter End, NYC, 1967. Speaking on themes that moved her in the music:
"[it] was prison work songs. When I sang them I seemed to get rid of some of my own hate and anxiety through those songs... also the Appalachian songs, their love and story songs."
Traces of these Appalachian influences can be found on her Tin Angel Days, North Beach 1954 album with Larry Lohr. Her vocal power is well expressed in song Deep Blue Sea, a tortured and soulful repetition of the songs title.
Holmes made her name playing at the Blue Angel nightclub in NYC, and hungry i, in San Fran. In those earlier days she would return to Alabama for her domestic work responsibilities and was actively involved in a number of civil rights movements.
Her experience singing folk music and early operatic training led her to discover a vocal range that runs from coloratura to baritone. An early collection of covers Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues included her interpretations of the Jimmie Rogers classic country standard Muleskinner Blues along with blues master Huddie Ledbetter’s, (Leadbelly) Alabama Bound. Leadbelly and Sonny Terry were among her many blues inspirations.
Her most commercially successful song Hit Or Miss (1970, Odetta Sings) addressed her depression at being repeatedly sidelined by the corporate end of the music business, the song embracing something of the philosophy of the rolling stone. (Less Jagger, more Muddy Waters.) Wherever she was, she continued to make music and stand up against the injustice she encountered.
Even if record companies didn’t look her way, this was no longer a barrier to her spiritual freedom,"Then a song came to me called Hit or Miss, which was saying whatever they [record companies] did or didn’t do I was still here, still working and still helping groups who are making this planet a better place."
"Can’t you see I gotta be me / Ain’t nobody just like this / I gotta be me / Baby hit or miss"
In her later days her music became increasingly more involved with her grassroots ventures, as she performed in schools to children and other smaller community orientated venues and continued to live the ethos she had spent her life expressing. Odetta Holmes is a true spirit of folk and blues history, defiant in acknowledgement of her music and its political significance, in the face of a particularly acute blend of repression.
Odetta would hauntingly return to the Bitter End in 2008 just before her death, her performance captured in the video below ~
- Psychic Garden