Civil rights beacon Odetta dead at 77

WASHINGTON Wed Dec 3, 2008 8:29am EST

1 of 3. Odetta sings 'Jim Crow Blues' at New York's Radio City Music Hall in a 2003 photo. Odetta, the deep-voiced folk singer whose ballads and songs became for many a soundtrack to the American civil rights movement, has died at age 77, her manager said on Wednesday.

Credit: Reuters/Jeff Christensen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Odetta, the deep-voiced folk singer whose ballads and songs became for many a soundtrack to the American civil rights movement, has died at age 77, her manager said on Wednesday.

Douglas Yeager said Odetta passed away late Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, after a decade-long fight with chronic heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis in her lungs.

"May Odetta's luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages," Yeager said in a statement. "Her voice will never die."

Odetta Holmes, born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 31, 1930, told the Times in a 2007 interview the music of the Great Depression, particularly the prison songs and work songs from the fields of the deep South, helped shape her musical life.

While she recorded several albums and sang at New York's Carnegie Hall among other prominent venues, Odetta is perhaps best remembered by most Americans for her brief performance at the August 1963 march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement at which she sang the song "O Freedom."

The Times said Rosa Parks, the woman who launched the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, was once asked which songs meant the most to her. "All the songs Odetta sings," was Parks' reply.

Odetta, who moved from Alabama to Los Angeles with her mother in 1937, earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. But she told the Times her training in classical music and musical theater "was a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life."

She said she found her true voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music from the African-American and Anglo-American traditions.

Odetta began singing professionally in a West Coast production of the musical "Finian's Rainbow," but said she found a stronger calling in the coffeeshops and nightclubs of San Francisco.

Her first solo album, "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues," influenced another American folk legend -- Bob Dylan. "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta," Dyland said in a 1978 interview with Playboy magazine.

In that album, Dylan said he heard "something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record," which included "Mule Skinner," "Jack of Diamonds" and "Water Boy."

In the early days of the civil rights movement, Odetta said her songs channeled "the fury and frustration that I had growing up" in segregated America. The many benefits she headlined helped underwrite the movement's work.

While Odetta's career cooled and her performances and recordings became fewer after the late 1960s, she retained her vocal and dramatic power even late in life. "Odetta's voice is still a force of nature," critic James Reed of the Boston Globe wrote of a December 2006 performance.

She remained "a majestic figure in American musician, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today," Reed wrote.