Wednesday, December 03, 2008


The images that flooded my head when I read that Odetta had died are black and white, of a single performer in a spotlight, with a pained expression and a powerfully affecting singing voice. It's a clip used in No Direction Home, the Martin Scorcese biopic of Bob Dylan:

The New York Times obituary had a beautifully succinct lede, calling Odetta "The singer whose resonant voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement."

As far as my own musical exploration and interests, Odetta had just barely passed through the "Anyone Bob Dylan likes is OK with me" world into someone who mattered in her own right, more for her singular place on the boundary of blues and folk than anything else. I missed seeing Odetta perform by missing out on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this October in San Francisco, but hers was actually the first set I found bootlegged. And as I searched Flickr for a good picture to use as album art, I was struck by the frailty that stood in such striking contrast to the powerful woman that clip showed, nearly 50 years earlier.

Such is life, and death, but two aspects of Odetta's death, now, in early December 2008, are especially moving to me.

The first comes from the obituaries, several of which state that Odetta had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration as president. It's a moment the world will never give to human history, but what a sweet moment to imagine. I thought first of Keb Mo, on a steel guitar at a fictional inauguration, but Odetta's song for Barack, and for this country, triumphing over a past that required so much to overcome, would have been something far more powerful, a moment far more meaninful and carried with far more grace. I wouldn't doubt it if Obama mentions Odetta at that podium, as well as his grandmother, speaking about an America that wakes on a new day to bow in grateful reverence to those who spent a life delivering it, only to close their eyes before taking even a first, fleeting glimpse.

The other notion that Odetta's death sparked so strongly for me is more personal, and from a more thankful and hopeful perspective. I just saw Pete Seeger perform, an 89-year-old giant, surely in decline, but still driven by that same love of peace and humanity and music that marked his entire life. Pete Seeger, I wrote just in advance of taking off for New York City just days ago, "has been a crucial and wildly influential part of the culture, the very life and soul, of this country, for three of my lifetimes."

What Odetta's death and Pete's concert distill for me are both part of the overwhelming sense of what can be learned, of what history can really be heard and felt, now, by those young and questioning and yearning for direction, by just having the good sense to look up. There's little mystery left about this world to those who have lived it the most. Don't let these teachers get away without learning something.

If there's a better lesson on not missing out, I don't know it.

Time Magazine wrote that "Odetta's stage presence was regal enough: planted on stage like an oak tree no one would dare cut down, wearing a guitar high on her chest, she could envelop Carnegie Hall with her powerful contralto as other vocalists might fill a phone booth... Some folks sing songs. Odetta testified." I could've seen Odetta, but didn't. Shame. But Pete is still with us. Dylan, Willie, B.B... The list is actually quite long. Learn from them, and celebrate the challenges and the artistry and the inspiration of a lives that really meant something to the course of human history.

The only Odetta record I have is one of Dylan covers, from 1965, but Dylan himself said that "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta." Great place to start. And I hope that thinking of her has a musician first, and a Civil Rights figure second, speaks mostly to how this country has changed after she made her mark. These live songs are from a bright afternoon, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, not two months before her death, and not a month before this country elected its first black president. Thanks, Odetta.

Odetta - Bourgois Blues (live San Francisco, 2008)
Odetta - House of the Rising Son (live San Francisco, 2008)

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