Odetta Biography

Odetta Holmes, 31 December 1930, Birmingham, Alabama. d. 2 December 2008, New York, New York. This legendary folk singer moved to Los Angeles when she was six, adopting the surname of her new stepfather, Felious. A classically trained vocalist, Odetta sang in the chorus of the 1947 Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow, before opting for a career in folk music. Successful residencies in San Francisco clubs, the Hungry i and Tin Angel, inspired interest in New York circles although her early releases revealed a still maturing talent. She had been brought up in the blues tradition, but moved increasingly towards folk during the late 50s (she sung jazz and blues for the RCA Records and Riverside Records labels, and, only occasionally, folk for Tradition Records). Her blues was sung in the Bessie Smith tradition, but without the same level of emotion. Nevertheless, she recorded standards including ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ and ‘Make Me A Pallet On The Floor’. In 1960, she took to the solo acoustic guitar and moved to Vanguard Records where her career flourished. The singer was championed by Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, the latter of whom Odetta accompanied on a 1961 UK hit, ‘Hole In The Bucket’. Eventually Odetta fell foul of changing trends and fashions in music, and much was forgotten of her early work from the 50s and 60s. She continued to tour and would be a fixture at political benefit concerts into the 2000s. In the late 90s she appeared to great effect on Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices Too (A Trip Back To Bountiful). Possessed of a powerful voice, her style embraces gospel, jazz and blues. The emotional mixture of spiritual, ethnic and jazz styles is best captured in person, and, therefore, 1961’s At Carnegie Hall and 1962’s At Town Hall remain her most representative sets. While she had hoped to celebrate Barack Obama's groundbreaking Presidential inauguration with a D.C. performance on that historic day, alas, she succumbed to heart disease one month short of that event, on December 2, 2008, at age 77.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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