Influential Black Leaders-Odetta
originally Odetta Holmes; surname legally changed to Felious, 1937; born December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Reuben and Flora (Sanders) Holmes; married Don Gordon in 1959 (divorced); married Gary Shead in the late 1960s (divorced); married Iversen “Louisiana Red’ Minter in 1977. Education: Earned a degree in classical music and musical comedy from Los Angeles City College.
Professional folksinger. Worked as an amateur singer at Turnabout Theater, Hollywood, CA, 1945; performed in the chorus of Finian’s Rainbow, San Francisco, CA, 1949; has performed in numerous concerts and festivals, including Newport Folk Festival, New Orleans Jazz Festival, and Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Actress appearing on stage, in motion pictures, and in television films, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Sanctuary. Guest on television programs, including Tonight With Belafonte, 1959, and Dinner With the President, 1963.
Awards: Sylvania Award for Excellence, 1959; presented with the key to the city of Birmingham, AL, 1965; Duke Ellington fellowship, Yale University.
phy of Miss Jane Pittman and the movie version of American novelist William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.
Odetta’s unique and amalgamated style ensured her popularity beyond the 1950s and 1960s. In the New York Times Jon Peeples described the singer’s performance in Merkin Concert Hall’s 1989 Voices of Change series: “She strung together blues and spirituals, many of them unfamiliar. Over the steady rhythm of her guitar and her tapping foot, she sent her voice to its clear heights and its nasal depths, bringing out the field holler roots of her music.” The musician has noted that her choice of material at a particular concert depends largely on her perception of the audience, and she prefers solo performances since they allow her the freedom to sing what she feels like singing.
Guitar Adds Dramatic Effect
Odetta’s vocals along with her self-acquired knowledge of the guitar combine to create a dramatic effect. “I’ll play the same few chords,” she pointed out to Robert Yelin in Frets Magazine, “but by varying my strumming, by harmonizing notes within a chord and picking some other notes—that way I’ll achieve the sounds of fullness. I love the opposite forces I can create by singing a smooth melody line and hearing my rhythm playing churning away beneath it. I love those dramatics in music.”
Often shunning the strict tenets of folk purists, Odetta explained her reason for employing numerous techniques in her performances, as quoted by Yelin: “If a song is important enough for me to sing, I’ll find a way to accompany myself on guitar. I would make up chords to fit the singing—I’m not a purist in any way, shape, or form. If I felt I needed to sing a song so badly, and I couldn’t play accompaniment for it, I would sing it a capella.”
Commanding Presence On Stage
One of Odetta’s most notable traits is her limitless curiosity about music. In addition to demonstrating a scholarly tenacity in researching traditional forms—usually at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—she has always been willing to try new styles. Accordingly, she has performed with such partners as musicians Count Basie and Bob Dylan and writer Langston Hughes and in various genres, including blues and gospel. Odetta’s versatility is demonstrated in her versions of the sprirituals “Hold On” and “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold Me Down,” her a capella arrangement of “God’s a-goin’ to Cut You Down,” her heartrending rendition of “All the Pretty Little Horses,” which evokes the injustice of plantation life in the American South, and her performance of the prison song “Been in the Pen.”