How Odetta revolutionized folk music
In 1937, Odetta Felious Holmes moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Los Angeles. At just six years old, she was already taller than the other children when she arrived in East Hollywood with her mother, Flora, and younger sister Jimmie Lee. At home, Flora stressed the importance of “correct 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 different musical tastes. He took to the radio again on Saturday night and listened to the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast directly from Nashville. Odetta raised her eyebrows at the roughly cut songs and comedic sketches, but she listened. Twenty years later, Odetta was redirecting the path of so-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 was not a single figure in popular culture who looked like Odetta.
At age eleven, Odetta began taking piano lessons. One day, while singing scales with a friend, Odetta reached a high C. Her piano teacher told Flora that Odetta should start taking singing lessons. When Flora started working as a babysitter for a puppet show called the Turnabout Theatre, one of its founders, Harry Burnett, heard Odetta sing – or “scream”, as Odetta described it – and decided to pay her lessons with a voice teacher named Janet Spencer. A contralto who recorded some of the first operatic sides for the 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 button factory while studying European classical music at Los Angeles City College in the evenings. “I dreamed of forming a quartet,” Odetta said, years later, “to learn the repertoire of oratorios and then offer ourselves to schools and churches.” Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes had found fame in Europe and America, so the idea of a career in black classical music was not unrealistic.
In 1950, “Finian’s Rainbow”, Broadway’s first hit in 1947, was revived for outdoor performance at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. “Finan’s Rainbow” tells the story of a racist senator who is zapped for being black, so he can experience the sting of Jim Crow laws firsthand. Odetta joined the show as a member of the choir and received positive reviews. Her childhood vocal coach had passed away, and Odetta had begun working with a New York singer named Paul Reese, who persuaded her considerable lower range into a true contralto voice. Reese also encouraged Odetta to open up to the burgeoning folk movement but, as Ian Zack writes in “Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest”, she had “learned to despise such low, [and] wasn’t quite ready to heed that advice.
That summer, 1950, folk quartet The Weavers placed their chirpy, orchestral version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” at number 1 for thirteen weeks in America. “No American could escape this song unless they cover their ears and go out into the desert,” Pete Seeger, then a member of the Weavers, later said. The original Lead Belly, itself likely a reworking of a Texas folk ballad, is about a woman who is “too young” and vexes the singer so much that he talks about “jumping into the river” and drown. Weavers ditched statutory rape, kept the river, and nailed a wedding announcement to the top of the song. Their version sounds like a field of bluebells from Disney singing.
In July 1951, Odetta traveled to San Francisco as part of a summer performance of “Finian’s Rainbow”, her first trip away from home. Her childhood friend Jo Mapes lived there and went out to see the woman she knew as ‘Detta’. “It was one of the Ziegfeld girls, dressed as such, who came down the famous Ziegfeld staircase,” Mapes said. “And there was ‘Detta, anything but slim, anything but delicate beauty.” Mapes and Odetta went to a bar called Vesuvio that night and returned to Mapes’ apartment, where they lay awake singing songs that were usually classified as blues or gospel but were beginning to be described as folk: Take This Hammer”, “Another Man Done”. Finished,” “I’ve been ‘Buked and I’ve been scorned. “
“In the songs I heard that night, including the prison songs,” Odetta said Sing! magazine, in 1991, “I rediscovered the sadness, the loneliness, the fear that I felt then. It changed my life.” Early folk music chart releases featured songs from a hazy past but innocuous, without political specificity and cultural origin. The electric instruments were mostly verboten, giving the movement a conservative aesthetic. Even as the music was slowly linked to communism (sometimes with precision), the behavior of the genre was cheerful and non-threatening. Next, Odetta developed a form that had the elastic power to change popular music. The same qualities that made her music radical in the 1950s also give her work an antiquated sound today: a black woman animated the horror and emotional intensity of American work songs by projecting them as a European opera singer.If we are to talk about “dunks” in popular culture of the 20th century is up there. Odetta was the contralto secret agent, amplifying a story of pain that others used to sing along to.
Once back in Los Angeles, Odetta began building her project. She studied the anthology “The American Songbag” by Carl Sandburg and found recordings of prison songs archived by the Library of Congress, kept on tape by John and Alan Lomax. Folk music, paradoxically, is one of the most hyped forms of singing we have. Odetta didn’t just sing songs that were passed down to her through the ages. She located many of her sources in libraries and probably heard others on records and on the radio. The basic idea, that the songs in question are part of a local amateur tradition not rooted in commercial entertainment, is not completely wrong, but the necessary interventions of the recording era make the idea a bit fancy. Decisions made to preserve folk music create as much artifice as a producer sending a voice through a stack of effects – the difference being that the revived song may have represented practice (singing outside while smashing rocks) or a tradition (telling stories through song) that would otherwise have been lost. But once you factor in the Weavers’ bowdlerizations and the rewrite that even Lead Belly did on a song like “Goodnight, Irene,” you don’t look at an act so different from quoting a melody in a solo or sample a break beat. A musician found a pre-existing piece she liked and decided to use it in her own music.
Odetta, however, had a specific archival purpose. As Matthew Frye Jacobson writes in “Odetta’s One Grain of Sand,” his novel-length analysis of the Odetta album of the same name, “Odetta rescued black art from the often disparaging – albeit romantic – American folklorists themselves, whose own problematic practices she was clearly aware of. She worked on her guitar technique with a teenage virtuoso named Frank Hamilton, who helped her develop “the Odetta strum”, a variation on the double-thumb rhythmic technique of musician Josh White. Her voice was already incredibly powerful, and her guitar playing became skilled and powerful. She could have gone into many fields, most obviously the stage and the cinema, but she had found an affective error in the folk music that she could correct. “While I was singing these songs, no one knew where the prisoner started and Odetta stopped, and vice versa”, has she told NPR in 2005. “So that I can let off steam, be furious.”
Odetta and Elvis Presley both released their first records in 1954, a time when nothing resembled pop music as we know it today. Color television had just arrived but was not yet common. There hadn’t been any Beatles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin or Rolling Stones records yet. Some of the songs that were to become staples of the English (white) blues movement were about to be thrust into the popular consciousness – by Odetta. It was precisely Odetta’s ability to convey spiritual uplift and personal pride that allowed her to convince wary audiences that “Another Man Done Gone” was as important as “Goodnight, Irene,” and that black Americans had the right to hear stories of their history. in the present like popular culture. Listening to his ’50s records now, however, 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 young listener eager to a kind of freer anger; something is missing from his royal performance and his allegorical songs.
If “Blade Runner” and “Seinfeld” were the first manifestations of the 21st century, Odetta was the last glowing ember of the 19th century, a performer who made a name for herself on stage with a voice that could reach cheap seats and town square too. Bob Dylan’s early records are ubiquitous, unlike those of Odetta. Admittedly, a matrix of biases contributed to this most unfair result. But at least one deals with the character of his singing itself. Her 1957 album “At the Gate of Horn” is well recorded, and Odetta’s vocal quality is as heavy and shiny as gold. She did not give up her opera voluntarily. Until the 1970s, when she began to soften her voice, Odetta rarely missed an opportunity to use her chest voice, extending a note and twisting it with vibrato. If you’re wondering what makes his music sound like opera, this is it. In pop, whether you’re Ariana Grande or Phoebe Bridgers, you usually hold long notes without vibrato. You can sing without vibrato at any volume, in any setting – that’s how most people sing. Pop is about uplifting amateurs (or the idea of them being amateurs, just like you), and that changed the larger framework of how we hear and interpret operatic singing: not generally pursuing amateurs, to a contemporary ear it doesn’t sound like pop.