“You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life … those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life.” -Odetta
Born in 1930, African-American Odetta, also known as Odetta Holmes, was a singer, actress,songwriter, guitarist and much more. Earning the moniker “Queen of American Folk Music” from Martin Luther King Jr., her music has been called “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement”.
With a college degree in music, she initially performed as a chorus singer, with theatre and folk groups and in clubs. She released her first solo album ‘Odetta sings Ballads and Blues’ in 1956. Her folk songs album released in the 1960s went on to be a phenomenal success. She also delivered duets with other famous singers such as Harry Belafonte. Her most stirring performance has been unanimously acknowledged as her rendition of “O, Freedom” at the civil rights movement’s 1963 March on Washington. She was vocal against racism, having first experienced it at the young age of seven on a train to California. Her music influenced many personalities of that period, including Bob Dylan and Rosa Parks (the latter is recognized as the “mother of the modern civil rights movement” in America).
In 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the year 2005 saw her honoured with the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. She performed almost up to the day of her death at 77 years of age. Besides bringing about an inspirational mainstreaming of folk music, Odetta’s compositions transcended the boundaries of an art form to fulfill a much higher purpose. Listen to one of her songs, originally a prison work song, that made it to the TIMES All time 100-