Making Music Herstory Vol III: Odetta

Odetta, born Odetta Holmes, is the greatest folk singer you’ve never heard of. She championed the American folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, influencing all the big names: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin. Early in her career, she caught Harry Belafonte’s eye and performed the duet ‘There’s A Hole In The Bucket’ on Tonight with Belafonte. This comedic sketch proved that folk wasn’t all pain and heartbreak, and she enlivened the scene with her light touch.

Odetta featured prominently in the Civil Rights Movement. She is remembered for her performance of ‘O Freedom’ at the 1963 March on Washington, the largest political protest in United States history. Characteristically modest, Odetta described herself as “one of the privates in a very big army” fighting for civil rights in America.

If any more evidence is needed for her brilliant talent, take ‘Water Boy’ as Exhibit A. The song opens with her powerful vibrato, holding the note confidently and demanding the attention of everyone in the room. Her guitar strokes are few and far between but precise, punctuating her vocal phrases. With her voice gracefully touching each of the soulful lows and whimsical highs, there are points in the song that sound as though Odetta is on the edge of tears. The song builds gradually until Odetta releases an otherworldly growl from the depths of her diaphragm. It is arresting and animalistic, and speaks of a desperation that simply can’t be sung. This is Odetta’s greatest talent: she articulates the purest of human emotions without dilution or showmanship: just raw feeling.

Odetta never stopped working hard to get where she deserved to be, and consequently can be heard in snippets and guitar twangs throughout music history. She put folk music on the map again, and we would do well not to forget it.

Tracklist: ‘Water Boy’ , ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ , ‘If I Had A Hammer’, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’

Jemima Skala