How Odetta Revolutionized Folk Music
Portside Date:
Author: Sasha Frere-Jones
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The New Yorker

In 1937, Odetta Felious Holmes moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Los Angeles. Only six, she was already bigger than the other kids when she arrived in East Hollywood with her mother, Flora, and her younger sister Jimmie Lee. At home, Flora stressed the importance of “proper diction” and straightened her daughters’ hair. On Saturday afternoons, Odetta and Jimmie Lee listened to the Metropolitan Opera on KECA. Her stepfather, Zadock Felious, had a different taste in music. He took over the radio on Saturday nights and tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast directly from Nashville. Odetta raised her eyebrows at the rough-hewn songs and comic sketches, but she listened. Twenty years later, Odetta would redirect the path of something called “folk music” by synthesizing the stagecraft of opera and country on prime-time television. But, in 1937, few people outside the academy were talking about folk music, and there wasn’t a single figure in popular culture who looked like Odetta.

At eleven, Odetta began taking piano lessons. One day, while singing scales with a friend, Odetta hit a high C. Her piano teacher told Flora that Odetta should start taking voice lessons. When Flora began working as a custodian for a puppet show called the Turnabout Theatre, one of its founders, Harry Burnett, heard Odetta singing—or “screeching,” as Odetta described it—and decided to pay for her lessons with a voice teacher named Janet Spencer. A contralto who recorded some of the earliest opera sides for Victor Talking Machine Company’s Red Seal label, Spencer taught Odetta German lieder and other art songs. After high school, Odetta worked in a department store and a button factory while studying European classical music at Los Angeles City College in the evenings. “I had a dream of getting a quartet together,” Odetta said, years later, “learning the repertoire of the oratorios, and then offering ourselves to schools and churches.” Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes had found fame in both Europe and America, so the idea of a Black classical-music career was not unrealistic.

In 1950, “Finian’s Rainbow,” first a Broadway hit in 1947, was revived for an outdoor presentation at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park. A romp about a leprechaun laced with a dash of social-justice pedagogy, “Finian’s Rainbow” tells the story of a racist senator who is zapped into being Black, so that he may experience the sting of Jim Crow laws firsthand. Odetta joined the show as a chorus member, and received positive reviews. Her childhood voice coach had died, and Odetta had started working with a singer from New York named Paul Reese, who coaxed her considerable lower range into a true contralto voice. Reese also encouraged Odetta to open herself up to the burgeoning folk movement but, as Ian Zack writes in “Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest,” she had been “taught to look down on such lowbrow fare, [and] wasn’t quite ready to heed that advice.”

That summer, in 1950, the folk quartet the Weavers put their chirpy, orchestral version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” at No. 1 for thirteen weeks in America. “No American could escape that song unless you plugged up your ears and went out into the wilderness,” Pete Seeger, then a member of the Weavers, later said. Lead Belly’s original, itself likely a remodelling of a Texas folk ballad, talks of a woman who is “too young” and who vexes the singer so much that he talks of “jumping in, into the river” and drowning. The Weavers dropped the statutory rape, kept the river, and tacked a marriage announcement to the top of the song. Their version sounds like a field of Disney bluebells breaking into song.

In July, 1951, Odetta visited San Francisco as part of a summer-stock performance of “Finian’s Rainbow,” her first trip away from home. Her childhood friend Jo Mapes was living there, and came out to see the woman she knew as ’Detta. “She was one of the Ziegfeld girls, dressed up like one, who came down the famous Ziegfeld stairway,” Mapes said. “And there was ’Detta, anything but slim, anything but a dainty beauty.” Mapes and Odetta went to a bar called Vesuvio that night and returned to Mapes’s apartment, where they stayed up singing songs that were generally categorized as blues or gospel but were beginning to be described as folk: “Take This Hammer,” “Another Man Done Gone,” “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”

“In the songs I heard that night, including prison songs,” Odetta told Sing Out! magazine, in 1991, “I found the sadness, the loneliness, the fear that I was feeling at the time. It turned my life around.” The earliest chart versions of folk music had presented songs from a vague but anodyne past, unspecific in politics and cultural origin. Electric instruments were mostly verboten, giving the movement a conservative aesthetic. Even as the music was being slowly tied to Communism (sometimes accurately), the demeanor of the genre was cheerful and unthreatening. Then Odetta developed a form that had the elastic power to change popular music. The same qualities that made her music radical in the fifties also make her work sound antiquated now: a Black woman animated the horror and emotional intensity in American labor songs by projecting them like a European opera singer. If we are to speak of “dunks” in twentieth-century popular culture, this is up there. Odetta was the secret-agent contralto, amplifying a history of pain others were using for sing-alongs.

Once back in Los Angeles, Odetta began to build her project. She studied Carl Sandburg’s “The American Songbag” anthology and found recordings of prison songs archived by the Library of Congress, preserved on tape by John and Alan Lomax. Folk music, paradoxically, is one of the most mediated forms of song we have. Odetta didn’t only sing songs handed down to her through the ages. She located many of her sources in libraries, and likely heard others on records and the radio. The basic idea, that the songs in question are part of a homegrown, amateur tradition not rooted in commercial entertainment, is not completely untrue, but the necessary interventions of the recording era make the idea sort of fanciful. The decisions made in preserving folk music create as much artifice as a producer sending a vocal through a stack of effects—the difference being that the song being revived may have represented a practice (singing outside while breaking rocks) or tradition (telling stories through song) that would otherwise have been lost. But once you factor in the bowdlerizations of the Weavers and the rewriting that even Lead Belly did on a song like “Goodnight, Irene,” you’re not looking at an act so different from quoting a tune in a solo or sampling a break beat. A musician found some preëxisting piece she liked and decided to use it in her own music.

Odetta had a specific archival focus, though. As Matthew Frye Jacobson writes in “Odetta’s One Grain of Sand,” his novella-length analysis of the Odetta album of the same name, “Odetta rescued black artistry from the often disparaging—if romantic—world of American folklorists themselves, whose own problematic practices she was clearly alert to.” She worked on her guitar technique with a teen virtuoso named Frank Hamilton, who helped her develop “the Odetta strum,” a variation on the musician Josh White’s double-thumb rhythm technique. Her voice was already an incredible force, and her guitar playing became deft and powerful. She could have gone into any number of fields, most obviously stage and film, but she’d found an error of affect in folk music that she could correct. “As I sang those songs, nobody knew where the prisoner began and Odetta stopped, and vice versa,” she told NPR, in 2005. “So I could get my rocks off, being furious.”

Odetta and Elvis Presley both put out their first records in 1954, when there was nothing like pop music as we know it now. Color TV had just arrived but was not yet common. There had not yet been any Beatles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, or Rolling Stones records. Some of the songs that would become staples of the (white) English blues movement were about to be introduced into the popular consciousness—by Odetta. It was precisely Odetta’s ability to convey spiritual elevation and personal pride that allowed her to convince a suspicious public that “Another Man Done Gone” was as important as “Goodnight, Irene,” and that Black Americans had a right to hear stories of their history in the present as popular culture. Listening to her fifties records now, though, they don’t sound like popular music, as a Lead Belly recording from 1935 often does. Odetta’s dignity is precisely what might alienate a younger listener wanting a more unfettered kind of anger; there’s something missing from her regal delivery and allegorical songs.

If “Blade Runner” and “Seinfeld” were early manifestations of the twenty-first century, Odetta was the last glowing ember of the nineteenth century, a performer who made her name on the stage with a voice that could reach the cheap seats and the town square, too. Bob Dylan’s early records are omnipresent, whereas Odetta’s are not. Certainly a matrix of biases helped bring about this outcome, most of them unfair. But at least one deals with the character of her singing itself. Her 1957 album “At the Gate of Horn” is recorded well, and Odetta’s vocal quality is as heavy and shiny as gold. She did not let go of her opera willingly. Until the seventies, when she began to loosen her vocals, Odetta rarely missed a chance to use her chest voice, extend a note, and twist it with vibrato. If you’re wondering what makes her music sound like opera, it’s that. In pop, whether you’re Ariana Grande or Phoebe Bridgers, you generally hold long notes without vibrato. You can do vibratoless singing at any volume, in any setting—it’s how most people sing. Pop is dedicated to the elevation of amateurs (or the idea of them being amateurs, just like you), and this changed the larger frame of how we hear and interpret operatic singing: not generally the pursuit of hobbyists, to a contemporary ear, it does not sound like pop.

Odetta’s song selection on that 1957 album? As atomized as America itself. “The Fox” (yes, the “little one chewed on the bones oh” song) and “Gallows Tree (Gallows Pole)” (yes, the old English ballad rewritten by Lead Belly and later stolen by Led Zeppelin) and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (yes, the Black American spiritual that ended up in a Volvo ad)—all of these, on one record. And then there’s her version of “Greensleeves,” which sounds like it’s being sung by a matron standing erect with hands gently folded before her. This is followed by the roots romp “Devilish Mary,” a nineteenth-century American song covered by both Seeger and the Grateful Dead. You see the problem with trying to revive a record like this: this kind of sprawl has been replaced by commercial specialization. The record was a mix of kids’ songs and blues and spirituals—if you did that now, you’re probably seen largely as a kids’ performer. And yet even Odetta’s children’s music threatened white America. When she went on the “Today” show in 1957, her first national television appearance, she was presented in a minimized form. Zack quotes Odetta’s manager at the time, Dean Gitter, as saying that the co-host of the show, Jack Lescoulie, “didn’t know what to make of Odetta, didn’t know what to make of folk music.” She ended up singing “The Fox,” which Gitter said “was all the Today Show could stand.”

A recording and film star who had a deep respect for Odetta’s work, Harry Belafonte, was tapped by Revlon in 1959 to do a prime-time live variety show. Belafonte “started envisioning a portrait of Negro life in America told through music.” Asked by executives who he would have on, he said, “First and foremost will be Odetta.” When asked what she looked like, he responded, “She’s a Nubian Queen. She is the mother of history, of all of Africa. Her beauty reigns as supreme.” Maybe the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was a big deal—I wasn’t there. But the clip of Odetta singing “Water Boy” on Belafonte’s special can still stop time, even in a compressed YouTube video.

Odetta opens with a summoning, voice hard and slightly above her lowest notes. The camera slowly zooms in on her, in a long-sleeved dress, lit by one spotlight. A prisoner, as unnamed as the original songwriter, yells to the water boy, only slightly more free than he is, “Waterboy / Where are you hiding? / If you don’t come right now / I’m going to tell your pa on you.” The singer changes from teasing to bragging. “There ain’t no hammer / That’s on this mountain / That ring like mine, boy.” For the second verse, she drops into a conversational register. For the third verse, she adds a wordless yelp and bangs her hand on the guitar for emphasis. It is the sound of the hammer. Very much like Kurt Cobain performing Lead Belly’s “In the Pines” for television thirty-four years later, Odetta erased the idea of music as entertainment. She happened, on television. For any viewers somehow still under the spell of Lost Cause politics, imagining satisfied Black workers all over the land, Odetta suggested something else. The Black worker, the Black prisoner, the Black singer—they were all of them alone.

By 1959, Odetta had transformed how people conceived of popular music in America. “If I had to pick one person responsible for the establishment of the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, it would be Odetta,” George Wein, the founder of the festival, recalled. Dylan told Playboy magazine, in 1978, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” Talking about his activities in 1961, he went on to say, “I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. . . . Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson,” the same model Odetta played.

In 1960, right after that TV special, Odetta and Belafonte recorded one of her biggest hits, “A Hole in the Bucket,” a rendition of the German children’s song. If Odetta hasn’t made it back into your conception of either emancipatory politics or popular music, it is not just because she sang like an opera star. Her commitment to her own vision simply didn’t waver. The songs she thought were important—sometimes songs for children—did not cohere with the kind of smooth self-similarity that evolved with pop music and is demanded by brands now.

When she recorded “Odetta and the Blues” in April of 1962, at only thirty-one years old and in an era still very early in the arc of the blues revival, she and producer Orrin Keepnews made the decision to use a Dixieland sextet complete with clarinet and trombone, a formation decades out of fashion. Add that outmoded setup to a selection of songs made popular by prewar singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and the resulting aesthetic could be fairly called old. The critic John S. Wilson, at the time, said of this album that Odetta “lacks the warmth and sense of involvement that make a blues singer,” a statement that becomes increasingly confusing if you imagine what “blues singer” would even mean today. If this album sounded out of step in 1962, now it comes across as a historical reconstruction.

Many of the fences Odetta vaulted no longer exist, but nor do the sites of her success. Her early triumphs happened in a series of coffeehouses and small clubs that are long gone. When singers such as Joan Baez and Carly Simon talked about being converted to Odetta as young adults, they were talking not about seeing her on television but about seeing her live in small rooms, where her force must have been like the space program: implausible and transformative. And even those television variety shows, long a way of calibrating America’s cultural equator, are gone. For unknown reasons, there’s also very little footage of Odetta playing live in her early years; most of her appearance at the 1963 March on Washington went unfilmed. A few more clips and she might have found her way into the Ken Burns slipstream.

In August, 2020, during an online conversation about Odetta, Jacobson said that Odetta is “almost unknown among younger Americans right now.” My own experience with Odetta’s music is nearly as limited as that of Professor Jacobson’s students. Through decades of rustling and listening and collecting, Odetta has barely crossed my view. I’ve heard Odetta’s music but never owned one of her records. Even d.j.s committed to blending histories into their mixes have mostly avoided Odetta’s songs. Two d.j.s did not, though, and this could be why people know Odetta now. In a 1999 collaborative mix called “Brainfreeze,” DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist manipulated the vinyl of Odetta’s song “Hit or Miss,” a bass-heavy track from her 1970 album, “Odetta Sings.” Upon hearing it, a music supervisor at gems sought out the original, later licensing it as the soundtrack for a popular ad, created by Wieden+Kennedy, for Southern Comfort, in 2012, for which they won three Clio Awards. In the spot, we see a chunky, oiled-up man—wearing leather shoes, a Speedo, sunglasses, and nothing else—walking purposefully and slowly along a beach. He steps over an old man! He dips his shoulder to a young woman! This gentleman knows what is comfortable, we gather. Odetta didn’t get us here—Russ Kunkel’s stolid, slow backbeat and Bob West’s wandering bass line put Odetta back in business—but the vocal nails it all the way down. Odetta opens with a wordless series—“la l-la la”—that gives the track a lightly drunk feeling. “Oh, can’t you see? / I gotta be me” the lyrics start, acting as the thought bubble for our beach champion. She still sounds proper, though she is loosened up, more than a little like Joan Armatrading. That stagy feel comes from the chest voice and vibrato, slightly recalling Bryan Ferry’s meretricious wobble here. “Ain’t nobody just like this / I gotta be me, baby / Hit or miss.” On the same album, there’s even a version of the Rolling Stones’s “No Expectations,” which finds a Black woman from the South reshaping the performance of a white British man trying to sound like some kind of pan-racial American wanderer: “I’ve got no expectations / To pass by here again.” Jagger plays this as nihilism lite, but Odetta has no truck with detachment, and sings the Stones song like a mournful god giving up on a world that won’t listen. “Hit or Miss” wasn’t wrong: Odetta did, in fact, have to be herself, and had a career that matches nobody else’s. “Odetta Sings” is one of many moments where you can hear how far she was able to go, and also how little she cared about commodity cohesion.

When the brilliant singer and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens made her début on David Letterman, in 2016, she performed Odetta’s arrangement of “Water Boy,” accompanied by a band. The musicians barely capture the force of Odetta by herself, and that excellence was also one of Odetta’s political gestures. Once she began her recording career in earnest, her entire mission was political, from the songs—which she described as “a history of us, and was definitely not in our history books”—to her Afro, one of the first seen in popular culture. When asked years later about her decision to wear her hair untreated, she said, “Nothing but political.” Her work also established the possibility of a certain collective action. As Jacobson writes, “If the movement for racial justice was going to make good use of the pro-democracy leverage that world affairs afforded after the war, it was first going to have to create a viable Civil Rights public amid the smoldering wreckage of the Old Left.” That “Civil Rights public” did not come into rude health until Odetta was there, in coffeehouses and on television shows, turning prison songs back into struggle songs.

Sasha Frere-Jones is an American writer, music critic, and musician. He has written for Pretty Decorating, ego trip, Hit It And Quit It, Mean, Slant, The New York Post, The Wire, The Village Voice, Slate, Spin, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Genius and The Los Angeles.

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