Folk Legend Odetta Dies Of Heart Disease

Hear A 2005 Interview

Odetta's folk songs made her a symbol of the civil rights movement. She performed at the civil rights march on Washington in 1963 and sang "O Freedom." Her ballads and songs became, for many, the soundtrack to the American civil rights movement. Manager Doug Yeager says Odetta died Tuesday of heart disease at the age of 77.

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(Soundbite of song "O Freedom")

Ms. ODETTA HOLMES (Musician; Actress; Human Rights Activist): (Singing) O freedom. O freedom. O freedom.


This is the music of the American singer Odetta who has died at the age of 77.

(Soundbite of song "O Freedom")

Ms. HOLMES: (Singing) And before I'll be your slave. I'd be buried in my grave.

INSKEEP: Her folk songs made Odetta a symbol of the civil rights movement. She performed at the civil rights march on Washington in 1963. She drew on her own experience, like a train trip she took as a child.

Ms. HOLMES: We were put on a train with enough food in boxes to serve an army because one should not starve on the way. And we were on the train. At one point a conductor came back and said that all the colored people had to move out of this car and into another one. That was my first big wound. That was my big, big wound that this music I've been able to work through.

INSKEEP: Odetta, known by just that one name, spoke with us in 2005 as she prepared to perform on New Year's Eve. She kept performing right up until her death on Tuesday in New York of heart disease. She said that folk music somehow conveyed a history of ordinary Americans.

Ms. HOLMES: I've oftentimes wondered what is it about "Amazing Grace." The words for sure. But there's something beyond what the melody and the words are.

INSKEEP: It's tempting to ask if you would favor us by singing a verse of "Amazing Grace."

(Soundbite of hymn "Amazing Grace")

Ms. HOLMES: (Singing) Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound, That saved our soul like me. I once was lost, But now I'm found. Was blind, But now I see.

INSKEEP: The late Odetta on Morning Edition from NPR News.

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