Herstory 25: How Odetta Holmes Sparked The Revival of Folk Music
The Voice Of The Civil Rights Movement
We’ve highlighted multi-hyphenated figures through this series before, but none that have reached such an extensive list as Odetta. With room to be credited as a singer, guitarist, writer, actor, lyricist, and a civil and human rights activist, Odetta Holmes, gathered both the tinder and kindling to spark the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
Becoming Tenessee’s Tin Angel
Born January 1st, 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta Holmes entered the world at the intersection of the Great Depression and the Great Migration of Black communities from the Deep South. At the age of 6, along with her sister and mother uprooted the family and migrated to sunny Los Angeles.
Encouraged by her schoolteacher, Odetta went on to study classical vocal performance throughout her adolescence. She began to get more and more involved in musical theatre, eventually joining the chorus in musical Finian’s Rainbow at the age of 19. Odetta was quick to realize that the classical music she was being trained in “was a nice exercise but had nothing to do with my life”. When asked who she wanted to be when she grew up, Odetta highlighted that she “had a teacher who because I was a big, black, young lady, she was gonna make me into another Marian Anderson. Well I adored Marian Anderson and I still do, but I knew I didn’t want to be anybody else”.
Following her time with Finian’s Rainbow, Odetta turned her full focus exploring the work songs of Southern prison camps and spirituals of slavery.
“Folk songs were the anger, the venom, the hatred of myself and everybody else”.
After releasing her first album The Tin Angel as part of a short-lived duo with Larry Mohr, Odetta’s first album as a solo act Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in 1956 was the first step in a large discography spanning over 50 years.
Women in (E)motion
Where her influence carried its weight was most notably throughout the 1960s. Odetta became known publicly as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”, performing at demonstrations, political rallies, and benefits across the country and being continually endorsed by the political leaders of the time. With music often serving a large role in any social movement, folk music embodied the resilience and connected the Civil Rights Movement to the passing generation.
“I Didn’t Wanna Be Anyone Else”
A number of artists that joined the folk-revival at following Odetta’s rise Joan Baez, Mavis Staples and Bob Dylan often cited Odetta as the reason that they began to pay attention to folk music for their own styles. It isn’t merely the intimate nature nor the Unplugged feeling of folk music, but the way that Odetta was able to connect generations through an art medium at a key moment in Black history.
And it didn’t take long to realize Odetta’s contribution. She had been decorated with a number of accolades, including the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts, the Visionary Award and the Library of Congress’ “Living Legend Award”.
Odetta Sings of Many Things
Odetta Holmes continued to tour and make special appearances well into the early 2000s, with her last performance in Toronto shortly before her death in 2008. Holmes had never shied away from her own influences, spirituality, and heavy involvement in the struggles for civil rights.
“You reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon life, your own individual life. Those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life and living, who reaffirmed themselves. They didn’t just fall down into the cracks of the holes.”
Folk music was a central piece to empower those who have come before and fueled the strength to carry on. If her image didn’t fit the grooves of the prevailing rock figures, including Elvis and Johnny Cash, Odetta didn’t seem to mind. She seemed much more entrenched with the plight of our people and expressing her own understanding, rather than the lures or eminence that famed offered. Odetta used folk music as an educational tool (much like we hope to) for both herself as well as our communities.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for the global, music community.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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