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Odetta: Legendary Folk Singer Dies At 77
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Odetta: Legendary Folk Singer Dies At 77
Odetta: Legendary Folk Singer Dies At 77
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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

When you talk to some of the most famous singers in America, they'll tell you that Odetta inspired the way they sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ODETTA: (Singing) If I feel tomorrow, like I feel today, I'll pack up all my clothes, I'm going to make my getaway. I'm going to...

NORRIS: Bob Dylan once said she was the first person that turned him on to folk singing. Odetta, who was known by just one name, died yesterday in New York of kidney failure and heart disease. As NPR's Danny Zwerdling reports, Odetta was more than a singer.

DANNY ZWERDLING: The moment you saw and heard Odetta, there was no way you could forget her. She stood on the stage back in her prime like a lioness, strong body, strong stance, short, short hair, big earrings jangling like swords. One moment, she'd grimace like something was hurting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ODETTA: (Singing) Well, you're hurting, If it don't come right here. Come tell upon you...

ZWERDLING: Then suddenly, Odetta would smile, and you'd melt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ODETTA: (Singing) Every little thing that you see shining, That ain't no gold, ain't no gold.

ZWERDLING: She was born Odetta Holmes in 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama. Those were dark days of the Great Depression. Odetta told NPR a few years ago how her family moved to Los Angeles. They hoped life would be better there. But the train ride was a reality check.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ODETTA: We were put on a train, and 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.

ZWERDLING: Wounds like that helped shape almost everything Odetta did in her music and in her life. She studied to be a classical singer in high school. People said she was a coloratura soprano. But then Odetta heard blues in Los Angeles and folk music in San Francisco, and soon, she was performing. Pete Seeger was already a legend when he heard her for the first time. It was in a friend's living room in 1950.

PETE SEEGER: We were going around the circle, maybe 15 people there, and a tall, young black woman in the corner hadn't said a word. It finally came her turn, and she sang "Take This Hammer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TAKE THIS HAMMER")

ODETTA: (Singing) I'm going to take this hammer, Huh, Huh, Take this hammer.

SEEGER: She was astonishingly strong and direct and wanted her songs to help this world get to be a better place.

ZWERDLING: By 1960, Odetta was a one-word household name. Stars who came along later like Janis Joplin, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tracy Chapman - they all said Odetta's early records helped shaped the way they sang. And Joan Baez, how did Odetta affect your music?

JOAN BAEZ: What she taught us was, aside from all the technical things on how to sing and how to stand, a real dignity that not that many people carry with them. Nobody came after her and tried to sound like Odetta because it wasn't worth it. You know, they couldn't.

ZWERDLING: In the 1970s, people began listening to other kinds of music, but Odetta kept performing, the last couple of years in a wheelchair. She sang one of her last concerts just this summer in Albany, NY. The local newspaper summed her up. The headline said, "A Frail Odetta is Strong, Sure, Confident." Earlier this year, she seemed to explain her philosophy in a song on Tavis Smiley's TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ODETTA: (Singing) Any old way you can make it baby. You keep on moving it on. If you can't fly, run, If you can't run, walk. And if you can't walk, crawl.

ZWERDLING: Odetta died yesterday. She was 77 years old. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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