I HAVE TO ADMIT IT—like many others, I was first exposed to the music of Odetta through Martin Scorsese's stellar Bob Dylan flick, No Direction Home. It you haven't seen it yet, put down this rag immediately and rent a copy, as anyone who can watch the guttural version of her song "The Waterboy" without being moved has clearly had their heart snatched away by thieving organ harvesters.
The image that appears to most people, when hearing the word "folkie," is of pasty, earnest Jews with warbling voices and strong feelings about unions. Odetta, a robust black woman with a deep, bellowing intonation, is the complete antithesis of every folkie stereotype. These distinctions are far from just skin deep, as she infuses passion and candor into field hollers and American standards that others often sully by limp recitation.
Odetta, who just celebrated her 76th birthday on New Year's Eve, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but a powerful love of music and a drive to succeed drew her to Los Angeles. The young singer was training for a classical and operatic career in the early '50s when she was bitten by the folk bug while visiting a Bay Area coffeehouse. With only a housekeeping job tying her to California, Odetta made the trek out to the thriving New York folk scene where friends like Pete Seeger and Harry Bellefonte helped propel her to fame.
While Odetta's most productive decade as a recording artist came in the 1960s, her star is once again on the rise. In addition to exposure from the Dylan documentary, her latest album, a live recording of spirituals called Gonna Let it Shine, recently received a Grammy nod. Still, a better listen might be 2001's Looking for a Home, which includes a set of Leadbelly covers.
Like many great folk artists, Odetta isn't particularly known for her own material but is most invaluable as a living conduit for history and the human condition. Odetta is an icon.