Name 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.

The name Odetta is probably unfamiliar to most people in the generation raised on MTV, yet she is one of the pillars of twentieth-century music. A folksinger distinguished by the power and clarity of her voice as well as the richness and intensity of her delivery, Odetta has also functioned as a living archive of music. By tirelessly researching, recording, and touring, and drawing on a variety of musical genres, she has kept alive the legacy of early folk and blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Leadbelly. Odetta has had a significant influence on modern music, providing inspiration for such performers as Janis Joplin and Joan Armatrading.

The singer was born Odetta Holmes on December 31, 1930, in Alabama. Her father died when she was quite young, and her mother remarried, giving the children their stepfather's surname, Felious, and moving the family to Los Angeles when Odetta was six. The youngster took piano and voice lessons and by the time she entered secondary school, she was beginning to discover her immense talent as a singer. She was the star of her high school glee club and, at the age of 14, began singing at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood. Odetta appeared to be headed for a career as a concert singer until some friends she met while studying music at Los Angeles City College introduced her to the embryonic modern folk music scene. In 1949 she began gigging in West Coast clubs as a solo act, accompanying herself on guitar. Early in her career, she purchased a wood-bodied guitar nicknamed "Baby," on which she did all of her arrangements for years. While she has never considered herself a proficient guitarist, she did in time develop a unique sound that was eventually canonized in the folk music world as "the Odetta strum."

Within five years, Odetta had built up a considerable reputation for herself on the West Coast. By the mid- to late 1950s, the singer was touring the United States and Canada; by 1961, she had played Carnegie Hall and appeared twice at the renowned Newport Folk Festival. Odetta was unquestionably one of the brightest stars of the folk music renaissance of the early 1960s, which also saw the first of many world tours for her. Reaching much of mainstream America through the medium of television as well, Odetta received acclaim for her appearance on a musical special with musician Harry Belafonte and stole the show from an impressive roster of singers in the 1963 program Dinner With the President. She also performed as an actress in several films and television programs, most notably The Autobiography 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.

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."

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 spirituals "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."

Whether standing in front of a symphony orchestra or alone with her guitar, Odetta is a commanding presence on stage. Her fans claim that the best of her recordings--most of which are out of print--fall far short of capturing the impact of her live performances. In the liner notes to Odetta Sings the Blues, critic Adam Barnes described her as "a large and significant voice that can swell with majesty, phrase delicately, dipping deep into the bottomless well of song."

by Joan Goldsworthy

Odetta's Career

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.

Odetta's Awards

Sylvania Award for Excellence, 1959; presented with the key to the city of Birmingham, AL, 1965; Duke Ellington fellowship, Yale University.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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