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Unforgetting Odetta

In 1961 Dr Martin Luther King, Jr called her the "queen of American folk music" – 60 years later it's time to recognise Odetta for the cultural icon she is
Odetta and Liam Clancy performing at the Clonmel Junction Festival in July 2006. Photo by John Crowley via Wikimedia Commons

Re-writing history is not an easy task, but it is an essential one.

Odetta, musician, and activist, has been largely written out of the popular music canon, along with countless other Black artists.

Of course, Odetta – who died in 2008 – has not totally and utterly slipped into obscurity, but it’s fair to say that she’s not remembered as well as her folk-revivalist peers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger.

“One of the challenging things about trying to reclaim or put people back into historical narratives is that we tend to feel that the way to ‘prove’ [their significance] is to connect them to people who are already considered important,” says Dr Maureen Mahon of New York University and author of Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll.

“So, it ends up being a situation where you’re saying ‘Odetta is important because she influenced Bob Dylan,’ but you can look at the way she was thinking about the history of African American music and trying to present it in a way that made sense to the moment. 

“That’s a really powerful thing and it doesn’t have anything to do with who she influenced or who came after her.”

Odetta performing at the March on Washington in 1963. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Odetta performed work songs (traditionally sung by enslaved Africans on plantations in the United States), prison songs, freedom songs, and spirituals alongside a huge catalogue of folk and blues songs – all with focussed political and historical intention.

“When Odetta starts to sing these songs, she realises there are prolific messages of protest embedded within them.

“She brings back those sonic contexts, so when you hear her holler or hit that guitar, she’s invoking the sound of chain gangs.

“That’s exploited labour. That’s the prison industrial complex at its very beginning, and that’s the criminalisation of Black men. So, she’s evoking those things, and if you’re not part of that you don’t know that,” explains Dr Tammy Kernodle, current president of the Society for American Music. 

Odetta used music to discuss African American history and the Civil Rights struggle that community faced. As she said herself, “there was no way I could say the things I was thinking, but I could sing them.”

Midnight Special is a great example. The song presents us with a prisoner who is searching for release and begging the Midnight Special to “shine her light on me”.

“The Midnight Special was a train that ran the southern route out of Houston, and it passed several prisons. The lore around it was that if the light of the midnight special shines on you it was good luck, and you were gonna get a pardon,” says Dr Matthew Frye Jacobson, author of Odetta’s One Grain of Sand.

“She brings back those sonic contexts, so when you hear her holler or hit that guitar, she’s invoking the sound of chain gangs”

Dr Kernodle

In his book, Dr Jacobson points out that the most fanciful idea being presented in this song is that of ever being pardoned.

“When I was researching it, my question was, was it a song about committing suicide on the tracks or is it a song about being rescued by the Midnight Special? I would argue, the version on One Grain of Sand is a suicide song, and when she says ‘I’m gonna leave you’ she means leaving this earth,” he explains.

He says this version makes “a kind of sense with her politics, to make it a different kind of statement”. 

Potentially, a statement about hopelessness and the systemic imprisonment of Black men.

The way Odetta performed these songs is also significant.

“To put these songs out in front of Black and white audiences was a really courageous move”

Dr Matthew Frye Jacobson

Waterboy (originally titled Water, Boy) is an old plantation work song. The protagonist of the song wants to know “waterboy, where are you hiding” and says “there ain’t no hammer that’s on this mountain that rings like mine.”  

In Odetta’s version, her percussive guitar playing mimics the sound of breaking rocks. Immediately, Odetta summons a powerful and truthful image of slavery and incarceration, of how Black communities have been treated in the United States. 

“To put these songs out in front of Black and white audiences, Black audiences to remind them of their resilience and the power of their past, and white audiences to say, ‘this is what built America and you need to face this’ – it was a really courageous move,” says Dr Jacobson.

“It’s amazing to think of the 23/24 year old woman standing in front of a mixed-race coffee house crowd and singing Waterboy. It’s astonishing,” he adds.

“You know, they told me in grammar school, as we were reading about slavery, that the slaves were happy and singing all the time. That was at a time when I felt – I think we all go through this – it couldn’t be in the book if it weren’t true. And I believed. I swallowed that thing and it damaged me,” Odetta once said. 

Her music and life’s work was to tell the truth of history.  

Dr Kernodle explains, “Odetta’s representing who we [African-Americans] really are, and she’s singing who we really are.”

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