ODETTA: (Singing) Oh, oh, freedom, oh, freedom, oh, freedom over me...
TONY COX, host:
Odetta's voice and lyrics took the country on a political and cultural journey through the civil rights movement. Her music was synonymous with the protest and marches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She has a new live performance CD now out in stores. It's called "Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays." The CD is a collection of spirituals. She joins us right now from our New York bureau. Odetta, it's a pleasure to meet you on the radio.
ODETTA: Bless you. Thank you very much for having me here, Tony.
COX: And before we start, let me say happy birthday to you. I understand it's coming up on...
COX: ...the end of the week, right?
ODETTA: Thirty-first, yeah.
COX: Congratulations. Let's start with this, Odetta. You know, you were born in the segregated South, Birmingham, Alabama. You came of age in Los Angeles as a young woman and launched your singing career in San Francisco and in New York in the 1950s. Now as you look back, how did your personal life experiences influence, you know, your sound, your cadence, even your lyrics?
ODETTA: My personal experience was as a little black girl growing up in the United States, a country that had Jim Crow in the South with signs and Jim Crow in the North without signs. And we knew where we were to go and where we should not attempt to go. And so growing up at that time, I studied classical voice, but when I got into the folk music area, the area started addressing the fury and frustration that I had growing up and to deal with.
COX: Well, before we talk about your new CD, I want to go back to something that we only briefly made reference to in the introduction, and that was your relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and marching with him. What was that experience like?
ODETTA: Well, in the '50s, there were people who were interested in improving life situation in this country, and many of them heard of what my work was, and I was called upon to be of assistance to bring either attention or to do concerts in order to make monies for people to do the job that they had to do. I was much too shy of a person to do anything but say `How do you do?' to all those people at the top there and just to sit at their feet and listen to what they had to say. So I was always like a student and always like a person that was looking in on stuff.
COX: Let's talk about the new CD, "Gonna Let It Shine." To begin with, this is your first, quote, unquote, "Christmas style" release in 45 years. So why now and why so long since you put out a piece like this?
ODETTA: I didn't have this in mind when I did the record, but just recently, we were in Europe, and in Europe, turning on the television, I would listen in to CNN, and there would be a lot of reporting on HIV and AIDS in Africa and how medicine was or was not getting to people who needed this kind of help. And there were children who'd lost both parents in incredible circumstances that these children were going through. And at some point, they were filmed in celebration, and this Christmas spiritual record, "Let My Little Light Shine," to me represents the determination that me and my folks had and came through within this country while this country's foot was on our throat. We lived in spite of. We found ways to get over, around, through and to get stuff done.
(Soundbite of music)
ODETTA and Group: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
ODETTA: (Singing) Shine.
ODETTA and Group: (Singing) Now this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
COX: Your songs do tell spiritual stories on the new CD, but they're old stories--How shall I say?--with a political message, in many cases, like the "Freedom Trilogy," "Keep On Moving It On." You know, it's an interesting blend that you have.
ODETTA: Thank you very much. I wrote "Keep On Moving It On."
COX: Oh, you wrote that?
ODETTA: I'm so glad you called that song.
COX: What does it mean to you, though?
ODETTA: Any way you can make it, baby. Keep on moving it on. That many times, we feel as if we can't do much of anything, and--but in our own way, within our own neighborhood, our own family, we can stand up for what it is that we believe in, so any old way you can make it, baby, keep on moving it on.
(Singing) Any old way you can make it, baby, keep on moving it on.
(Soundbite of "Keep On Moving It On")
ODETTA: (Singing) If you can't fly, run. You can't run, walk. And if you can't walk, crawl. Any way you make it, baby, you keep on moving on.
COX: Here's my final question for you, and I have really enjoyed talking with you today.
ODETTA: Bless you. Thank you.
COX: Have you seen a young Odetta in today's musical world?
ODETTA: No, and hopefully, I don't.
COX: Really? Why do you say that?
ODETTA: Well, whoever has the talent has their own talent. And unless there's a duplication going, I guess they would be 75 now.
COX: I guess they would.
ODETTA: So I don't have any competition to worry about.
COX: Odetta, the living legend who marched with Dr. King and performed for presidents Kennedy and Clinton, has a live performance CD out called "Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays." It is a collection of spirituals. Thank you so much for coming on, and once again, have a very happy birthday.
ODETTA: Happy holiday to you. Thank you very much, Tony.
(Soundbite of "Keep On Moving It On"
ODETTA: (Singing) ...keep on moving it on. Any old way you can make it, baby, you keep on moving it on. And if you can't fly, run. You can't run, walk. And if you can't walk, crawl. Any way you make it, baby, you keep on moving it on.
COX: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to this show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Tony Cox. This is NEWS & NOTES.