Odetta, the powerful voice of folk and blues whose music was the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, died December 3, 2008 in a Manhattan hospital. She was 77. She died of a heart attack but had been admitted several days earlier for kidney failure.
Born Odetta Holmes on December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Ala., during the height of the Great Depression, she grew up on the black folk, blues and prison work songs that she heard around her. In 1937 she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, and in a 2007 videotaped interview for the New York Times, she recalled her humiliation on the trip as all the "colored" passengers were required to move from the train car they were riding in.
One of her teachers commented to Odetta's mother in 1940 that she had a voice that should be trained, and so Odetta studied classical voice music in high school and at Los Angeles City College, where she earned a degree in it. But she later dismissed her classical training as a "nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life," for she had discovered folk music -- the traditional songs of the African American and Anglo-American folk and working people's lives, and that music became her passion to sing.
"Odetta marched with Martin Luther King at Selma and sang three freedom songs at the 1963 March on Washington."
While touring in a West Coast version of "Finian's Rainbow" in 1950, after the shows in San Francisco she'd go to the "bohemian" coffeehouses and sing the folk ballads and blues she loved. She went on to sing folk music professionally and released her first album, Odetta Sings Blues and Ballads, in 1956. One of the people strongly influenced by this recording was a young Bob Dylan, who said in 1978 that her record inspired him to pursue folk music. Odetta was also a strong influence on Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen.
Singing blues and folk moved Odetta to participate in the Civil Rights Movement and to do fund-raising benefits for it. "The folk songs were -- the anger," she put it, with the words and music capturing "the fury and frustration that I had growing up." In her 2007 interview for the New York Times she called this music "liberation songs," and said of them, "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 on your life."
Odetta marched with Martin Luther King at Selma and sang three freedom songs at the 1963 March on Washington. Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks was once asked which songs meant the most to her. "All of the songs Odetta sings," she replied. Odetta wore her hair in the 1950s and early 1960s short-cropped and 'natural," a precursor to the Afro, seen in the late 1960s as affirming positive Black Identity.
Odetta was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities from President Bill Clinton in 1999 and received a "Living Legend" tribute from the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center Visionary Award in 2003. With her career revived in the 1990s, she was a regular on the "Prairie Home Companion" public radio show, and, starting in 1999, she recorded three CDs for roots music label MC Records, the Grammy-nominated Blues Everywhere I Go, Lookin for a Home: Thanks to Leadbelly and a live concert album, Gonna Let It Shine. Her 2007 interview for the New York Times, "The Last Word," is archived on its site, and there are numerous short films of her singing, both vintage and recent, on Youtube.
Two More Black Music Legends on CD
Sleepy John Estes with Hammie Nixon
On 80 Highway
Delmark DE 797
Brownsville, Tennessee, 57 miles north of Memphis, produced three legendary performers of the blues who first recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s and were distinguished players until their deaths -- mandolinist Yank Rachell, along with his early recording mates guitarist Sleepy John Estes and harmonica player Hammie Nixon. All three were "rediscovered" during the folk blues revival of the early 1960s, and all three recorded on several albums for blues-and-jazz label Delmark from the early 1960s on.
"Sleepy John does most of the lead vocals."
On 80 Highway is a just-released recording session of Estes and Nixon from July 19, 1974, just before they embarked on a successful tour of Japan, among the first Black blues artists to do so.
The 17 tracks on this CD are eloquent portraits in the classic country blues by two of its longtime masters. There are 15 musical tracks and two tracks of talk, narratives on asking the time from a cop and getting the blackjack on the head instead, and on woman problems, from Hammie Nixon, with banter between him and Estes.
The musical tracks are for the most part traditional songs. Two are Sleepy John Estes compositions, one of them, "Brownsville Blues," originally dating from 1929 when he first started recording, while the other two, "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead" and "Corrine Corrina," also go back decades.
There are two different tracks of an unattributed song, "President Kennedy," on his assassination and death. Three of the songs on the CD -- "Holy Spirit," the venerable "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Do Lord Remember Me" are spirituals.
Sleepy John does most of the lead vocals, his tenor voice with its slightly slurred delivery rendering even the blues songs in a raconteur-like manner -- for Estes was indeed one of the great storytellers of the blues. He accompanies himself on elemental rhythmic-riff guitar that is elegant and subtle, while Nixon provides excellent country harp and kazoo accompaniment. Nixon also does accompanying vocals on many of the songs and has the solo vocal on "Potatoe Diggin' Man," a precursor of Yank Rachell's "Tangle Up In Your Vines," and lead vocal on "Do Lord Remember Me."
There is excellent stereo separation here, with Estes's vocals and guitar on the right channel, and Nixon's vocals and speech, harp and kazoo on the left. This separation especially recommends On 80 Highway to the aspiring blues harmonica student, for Nixon's masterful licks come through most clearly. This is solid first-position (playing the melody line) and second-position (chord and single-note accompaniment) country blues harp by one of its most notable exponents.
Nixon is solidly creative on the kazoo as well, giving forth a high-register and trilling performance on it on "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead" and using the trill to great effect on harp on the opening track, "Love Grows In Your Heart," and the ending track, "Brownsville Blues." All this makes On 80 Highway an excellent addition to Delmark's Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon collection.
That Notable Year in Rock 'n' Roll History -- 1958
2008 has been a notable year, as was 1958 a notable year in rock 'n' roll history. For example, Connie Francis had her first hit with "Who's Sorry Now," and Bobby Darin made his recording debut with "Splish Splash" (who can forget that?).
But most notably, 1958 was the year -- in which Fabian first recorded! Isn't that exciting! How can any year in rock 'n' roll history get more memorable than that?!
"Fabian's history-making response was the deliciously understated, 'Are you kidding?'"
Of course, we all know the classic story of how Fabian was discovered. The good-looking lad was sitting on a stoop in Philadelphia when a promoter, eagerly looking for another Elvis, spotted him and asked him if he'd like to become a star. Fabian's history-making response was the deliciously understated, "Are you kidding?"
The young (only 14) Fabian Forte was duly signed to a recording contract and even given singing lessons, though he was incapable of holding a tune in a bucket. But he went on to record such masterpieces as the unforgettable "Tiger," "Turn Me Loose," "Hound Dog Man" and other records, and appear in a starring role in several B movies. Not to mention being an early male nude centerfold for Playgirl magazine. (Hey! House payments are expensive!)
But more important historically, Fabian's success as a teen idol paved the way for such rock 'n' roll luminaries with good looks as Bobby Vee (who had the greatest sweater collection in rock 'n' roll history), Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and Johnny Burnette (who successfully made the transition from solid rockabilly artist to insipid teen idol), not to mention launching a whole, ongoing genre of pretty-boy teen idols that persists to this day.
Who can forget all those who came later--Donny Osmond, Bobby Sherman, Lief Garrett and Justin Timberlake, to mention only a few? (And while we're mentioning pretty-boy rockers, let's not forget Mick Jagger and the other Rolling Stones!)
But let's not be male chauvinist here. In addition to the above-mentioned Connie Francis, let's add Annette Funicello, Connie Stevens (memorably of "Sixteen Reasons" and speaking on teen idol Edd Byrnes's "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb"), and Shelly Fabres (of "Johnny Angel" fame: [high-register girl chorus getting higher each stanza] "Johnny Angel/Johnny Angel/Johnny Angel/ [Fabre's vocals coming in at a much lower pitch] "You're and angel to me").
Ah, rock 'n' roll! Such are the sweet ironies of your existence: through your creative muse and inspiration, even that which is the least memorable lives on to become truly memorable!
George Fish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.