Odetta Remains A Powerful Voice For Justice Folk-music legend Odetta was a force in the 1960s push for social justice. Her passion inspired fellow musicians and activists such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Harry Belafonte. Odetta died Dec. 2, 2008, at the age of 77. Hear a 2005 interview.
NPR logo

Odetta Remains A Powerful Voice For Justice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5074594/5075557" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Odetta Remains A Powerful Voice For Justice

Odetta Remains A Powerful Voice For Justice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5074594/5075557" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We've been marking the approach of New Year by getting the Long View from people of long experience. Now here's a woman with a Long View in music. She's an influential folk singer known by a single name, Odetta.

(Soundbite of "Midnight Special")

ODETTA (Folk Singer): (Singing) Well, you wake up in the morning. You hear that big bell ring.

INSKEEP: Odetta Holmes Felious Gordon was born on New Year's Eve. She turns 75 years old tomorrow.

(Soundbite of "Midnight Special")

ODETTA: (Singing) Let the midnight special shine a light on me. Let the midnight special...

INSKEEP: Is there one song that you could name for us that you vividly remember from your very early years that you loved to sing?

ODETTA: I remember I was told before we left Alabama that my grandmother took me to some function where she and her cronies were hanging out, and I came back and was sitting on top of a trunk singing a blues song. I don't know what that song was. And I think they had even given me a little sip of something. Anyway, I--it might as well have been my first drunk performance!

INSKEEP: Your first? Have there been others?

ODETTA: None of your business.

INSKEEP: I'm here, you can talk to me.

ODETTA: Of course there have been. Of course there have been. In Epsila(ph), a university men's club, brought us in many, many years ago, and but we had to go and drink Schnapps and beer and eat before we did the concert. And so they led us kicking and screaming into the dining room, and so the glass would go up, and the singing, we were doing (makes singing noises), and then drink the beer. Now that was the drunk performance.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

ODETTA: (Singing) This stream don't carry no gamblers.

INSKEEP: After being born in Alabama, your family moved to Los Angeles when you were six years old. You were born at the beginning of the Depression in 1930. The Depression was still on in 1936. Do you remember anything of that journey across the country?

ODETTA: Oh, the journey. We were put on a train with enough food in boxes to serve an army, because one should not starve on the way, and it--we were on the train when 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: Did your family take boxes of food because they did not think that they would necessarily be served along the way?

ODETTA: Oh, only think, they knew. They knew. We lived--it was still called Jim Crow in those days. And even if there was a restaurant there, we wouldn't be able to go and get something to eat.

INSKEEP: Some people have said, and I'm trying to remember if you're among them, that folk music can be seen as a kind of secret history of America.

ODETTA: It is the history of America. And as I've been in it, I've found that when--coming from some powerfully strong, determined folks--whether we were kidnapped or we chose to come here--a lot of hard work just getting over, through and to the next day.

INSKEEP: What conveys that in a piece of music? It's not just the words, is it?

ODETTA: I think that there is something other than what the words are. I've oftentime wondered what is it about "Amazing Grace"? I mean, it--the words for sure, but there's something beyond what the melody and the words are.


ODETTA: I don't know what that is, and maybe it's a good thing I don't know because then I would tell you what it was and then we'd start messing it up.

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

ODETTA: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a soul like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see.

INSKEEP: Well, Odetta, thanks very much for taking the time.

ODETTA: Oh, bless you. You've been a saint. I thank you.

INSKEEP: And hold on just a sec. Can you hold on just a second? This is Melissa Yeager-Miller(ph) from...

MELISSA YEAGER-MILLER: Hey, can you hear me?

ODETTA: Hello, I can hear you.

Ms. YEAGER-MILLER: Oh, goodness. I'm the producer here in LA, actually, and when I was telling my father that Steve was talking to you today, he told me about in 1972 in Aurora, Illinois, you performed at the Amazing Grace coffeehouse and had a sing-along of "Home on the Range" and said that it was about how we can sing differently but we can all sing along. And it stuck with him and it touched him so much that 30 years later, he really wanted me to share that with you.

ODETTA: Would you thank him for passing that on to you? And I tell him I also remember that evening. The place was a quonset hut and very hot, and the kids were absolutely wonderful. And I do thank him for reminding me of it.

INSKEEP: I don't suppose you could leave us with a few bars of "Home on the Range"?

ODETTA: (Singing) Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer, antelope play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Skies are not cloudy all day.

INSKEEP: That's the Long View from Odetta. You can hear more conversations at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Enjoy the New Year. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.