Hail Odetta Seminal Matriarch

Hail Odetta Seminal Matriarch


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The real deal is that folk music is a particular people’s music told at a basic level,

whereas classical music is a “refined” expression filtered through the consciousness

and techniques of an educated composer and trained musicians.



Odetta CDs

Looking for a Home  / The Essential Odetta  /  Blues Everywhere I Go  /  Sings Ballads and Blues  /  Absolutely the Best  / Odetta Sings Dylan

Tradition Masters

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Hail! Odetta: Seminal Matriarch of Modern Black Music

Looking for a Home

Reviewed by Mtume ya Salaam & Kalamu ya Salaam



We don’t fully know ourselves. We need to know ourselves. All of us. All of us need to know the all of us. Especially the obscure sides of us, the hidden, ignored and just plain forgotten sides of us. The Odetta of us. The women and men of us who stood tall when America wasn’t nothing but mostly one big old giant chopping axe. When it was common to think of us as much less than we actually was. Even among ourselves we low-rated our peoples, our history, the rich survival legacies we passed around, legacies what was blankets in the wretched times of our economic nakedness and was cool sips of water in the desert of the mock democracy we endured. I don’t mean to solely focus on the political in talking about Odetta, about our music, about what is commonly called American folk music, but what you going to do? If you tell the truth about our music, you gotta tell the stone truth about what was going down all around as the music was being made, even though it’s also true that you don’t have to know none of the context to like what you hear. Here in the beginnings of the 21st century, we are kind of used to music as mostly being ass-shaking entertainment, so these life stories of ramblers, prisoners, heartbroken individuals, struggling families, and assorted strivers, all these reels, airs, tunes, melodies, musical tapestries and such probably strike our modern sensibilities as odd. But what is really odd is how reluctant many of us are to handle up on the guts of our traditions, the 19th and 20th century roots of our current humanity. Americans are used to thinking there is no past worth studying and remembering. History is boring and civics a waste of time. So we not only don’t know, we don’t want to know. Fortunately, Odetta, who started recording in the late Fifties is still with us and well into the Nineties continues to drop sonic gems.

Born Odetta Gordon on December 31, 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama, this Los Angeles-raised woman was training for classical music when she found herself in a San Francisco Bay coffeehouse and was captivated by what she heard, i.e., folk music. What is folk music? What is the difference between folk music and classical music or any other music? Folk music is a label usually used to designate non-literate musical expressions of a specific ethnic or social group. The emphasis is usually on the performance of music that has passed on from mouth to mouth, from older musicians to younger musicians. In America, the term “folk music” is generally associated with guitars, fiddles, dulcimers, tambourines and other portable hand instruments. The real deal is that folk music is a particular people’s music told at a basic level, whereas classical music is a “refined” expression filtered through the consciousness and techniques of an educated composer and trained musicians. Anybody can play or sing folk music but you have to be educated (at the very least be able to “read” music) to perform classical music in a manner considered acceptable by the mainstream. That’s what is usually meant by “folk” music, but people such as Odetta surpassed the limitations often imposed on folk music. She was literate, she was a serious student of music and she had the ability to play all types of music. The notion of “just grew,” i.e., a natural performer who has not studied, does not apply to Odetta. In other words: you don’t have to be illiterate to be a folk musician.

What Odetta did was consciously collect the music of the various ethnic groups that make up America, which is the same thing the early blues artists did. They could perform all of the popular music both national and regional. Thus, Odetta does a song like “Sail Away Ladies.” This is all our heritage, especially so when we speak of African Americans who are the most creolized, i.e., mixed, of any identifiable sub-group in America. Odetta’s impact on American music in general and folk music in particular is most easily measured when you consider that a young Bobby Zimmerman gave up his electric guitar and started playing acoustic after hearing Odetta. It doesn’t matter than less than a decade later, that Zimmerman, bka Bob Dylan, would shock the folk world when he electrified his music. What matters is that Bob Dylan became Bob Dylan partly as a result of Odetta’s inspiration. “Don’t Think Twice” is taken from Odetta Sings Dylan. Although it may not be immediately obvious, Odetta inspired a lot of people, yours truly included. Around 1959, I was just starting to study and collect black music. I got into the blues through two performers: Harry Belafonte with his Belafonte Sings The Blues recording and Odetta, especially that 1962 Odetta and The Blues album with Vic Dickerson on trombone. Neither Harry nor Odetta is primarily known for the blues but they introduced me and, as some sort of seal of approval, check out that the both of them are still active. Two songs from Odetta’s early recordings will always stay with me: “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor” and “Another Man Done Gone.” “Pallet” has a deep traditional New Orleans jazz feel but even though I was a native, back then I didn’t know much about the history of jazz. I was just responding to what felt good. “Another Man” struck me as an important witness statement about running away from oppression. At that time, those of us who were teenagers in the Civil Rights Movement saw ourselves as standing and fighting back. We believed that the best the previous generation could do was run. It was through deeper study of the music that I began to hear much more than fleeing, I also heard fighting and that bucked me up.

On another level, listen to “Black Woman” and you will hear Odetta still tapping that resistance sound, hooking up external social situations and internal personal loss into one big ball of hurt and pushing it on down the road. Our people have long known that one of the most important social functions of music is publicly expressing hurt as a way to heal the self. Odetta’s version of “Amazing Grace” is a “soul” song done up old-time congregation style. Recorded at a festival, “Amazing Grace” scoops up the audience and teleports them into a spiritual space that many of them had probably never visited afore. Our featured song is a Nineties version of “The House Of The Rising Sun.” Odetta calls her duet with pianist Henry Butler simply “New Orleans.” Like Odetta, Henry Butler is deep into the blues and is also a trained musician who studied classical music—you can hear the breadth of Butler’s musical experiences in how he offers altered chords and unexpected progressions on this traditional song. The last two songs “Give A Damn” and “Hit Or Miss” represent recent recordings from Odetta done in a contemporary style. Check the fatback drum intro on “Hit Or Miss.” Here we can easily hear how Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman are Odetta’s daughter and granddaughter, respectively.

I’d like to close this homage to Odetta with a note on her appearance. She was a big, black woman who wore her hair short and natural. Marilyn Monroe was the beauty icon of the Fifties. Joan Baez became the major image of the folk singer. Odetta was a big, black woman. Who wore her hair cut short. Real short. And natural. Go look at the pictures of black women in Jet or Ebony in the Fifties (or the Nineties for that matter). See how many big, black (i.e., dark-skinned) women you find with short and natural hair. Hail, Odetta! A seminal matriarch of modern black music. Musically, she collected our roots and passed them on to the most conscious elements of musicians from the Sixties and Seventies. And now in the 21st century, she continues to offer guidance and inspiration.


Hail, Odetta.—Kalamu ya Salaam


Source: Breath of Life


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A personal hang-up           It may be a personal hang-up of mine, but I’ve always had a problem with educated people “putting on” as though they aren’t. I always think, man, just do you. Just be what you are. I don’t know Odetta the woman, of course. For that matter, I don’t know the first thing about Odetta the musician either. So these comments are less about Odetta herself, and more about my reaction to Kalamu’s biographical sketch and to the (relatively) few selections I’ve heard here. I listen to some of these tunes and I think of how much it drives me crazy when I hear a university professor playing Dixieland or when I hear classically-trained jazz musicians playing New Orleans street music or, as Kalamu and I talked about last week, when I see well-spoken, well-educated, well-dressed blues musicians on PBS singing to a mostly-white and affluent-looking audience about how po’ broke and lonely they feel now that they woman done gone.

The particular tune that got me thinking about of all of this is “Another Man Done Gone.” I was actually digging that one. I was feeling the whole thing: the lyrics, the handclaps, the vocals, everything. Then Odetta finished and immediately this loud – but polite – applause came in. I was like, ‘What?! That was recorded live?” If you don’t get the point I’m trying to make, listen to something like Aretha’s Amazing Grace album. That music was recorded live in a church full of true believers, music lovers and probably assorted hangers-on and political types who managed to snake their way in. Of course, if you’ve heard the record, I don’t have to tell you it was recorded live because from beginning to end, the audience never shuts up. They never let you forget it’s live, not even for a minute. And Aretha wouldn’t want them to.

Live recordings of authentic folk music (black folk music, at least) done with an authentic folk crowd would never have that austere quiet of a recording studio. How could it when the audience is clapping and yelling and hollering, “sure, you right,” and “go ‘head,” and “testify!” I’m not just talking about gospel. I’m talking about blues, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, anything. In its early manifestations, every type of black music there’s ever been is folk music, and if it’s live, you’re going to hear that audience participating in the music. They’re never quiet observers. Over and over, it seems, our music becomes popularized until it loses all connection to the people. Then it’s treated as what it has actually become: as a museum piece. Upscale people of all races pay lots of money to see musicians (usually quite sincere musicians – I’m actually not knocking the musicians themselves) recreate the same music that, back when it was actually relevant, those same upscale people wouldn’t be caught dead listening to. I saw a blurb the other day announcing that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five had become the first hip-hop artists to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. As someone who’s been loving hip-hop since the early Eighties, I guess I should’ve been proud. Instead, I felt a little queasy. Go to a show featuring “real hip-hop” these days and you’ll find it’s just like the Odetta thing. It might be real, but for me at least, it’s real in a vacuum. —Mtume ya Salaam


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Don’t sleep on Odetta         Mtume, remember this: you were learning to play bass and you had a horrible music teacher in high school. You gave it up. Later, there was a conversation with Ellis Marsalis. Ellis grinned his acid Cheshire cat grin and intoned: so you let a lame cat stop you from learning something hip? (or something to that effect). I’m sure you remember.

That said, I’ve had some of the same feelings you describe. Odetta came through the folk scene, a scene that was overwhelmingly white. Moreover, during the sixties, the folk scene was almost a frenzy of embracing black folk artists, particularly acoustic blues players who were often literally in their last years alive on earth. Your (and my) general aversion to scenes where the performers are black and the audience is overwhelmingly white is a residue of being raised in America. You go to Europe and you don’t quite get the same feel, even though it’s the same black performer/white audience syndrome. So, Mtume, what did you think about the version of “Amazing Grace” on which the audience does as much, if not more, singing than Odetta. What about those last two tracks recorded in the nineties with a band? You stopped playing bass because of your square-ass, obnoxious teacher. One of the great paradoxes of black music is that very, very often (some, like you and I, would say way, way too often) the available venues for the presentation of the music is in alien spaces and places. Certainly we both are aware that the audience is an important element of the music. You can’t produce hip music if you only play for square audiences. No argument from me on that count. But what’s a musician to do: turn down gigs unless there are a specific number of blacks in the audience. “Oh, um, sorry, we can’t play tonight, not enough black people out there.”?!?!? And do we give up touring Europe altogether? Obviously this can quickly fall off into the realm of the senseless, but it’s a necessary discussion. In some ways the role of the audience is critical to the development of the music. I don’t approach this issue mechanically, nor do I think it makes any kind of sense to have some kind of racial quota, as if being hip was a racial thing. Condeleeza plays piano, you think she’s hip? There’s a very, very interesting discussion going on in the blogasphere about this very subject. Check out Hello black folks? Can you hear me?, an article by jazz saxophonist Matana. She delves into the “absence of a black audience” question from her perspective as a musician.

Ok, we took the long way around, but Mtume I urge you to give the Odetta tracks another listen. Not just for the music itself, but also to understand that paradox and contradiction are at the heart of what we do—if we let the absence of blacks or the presence of whites totally determine what we do or don’t do, we’re not going to get very far. We may never learn to play the bass.—Kalamu ya Salaam


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Real in a vacuum? Maybe so. But I’m not sure that that causes any diminution in value and significance. I suppose at one point that was my view about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They did not sing the Spirituals in the same manner as folks did in the backwoods. On reading James Weldon Johnson’s sermons, though artistic, they seemed somewhat of a shadow of the authentic Negro sermon of, say, a C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father. And I know I’ve said that the blues of Langston Hughes and those of Sterling Brown fall short in ways from the blues of Robert Johnson or Sun House or even Muddy Waters. The same applies to their ballads.  These formally “educated” artists, however, brought something else, an important addition, I think, a self-consciousness, a self-awareness, possibly absent in the authentic folk artists, of a broader and deeper significance of the folk material. This “backward glance” and the understanding of the larger significance of the material made the folk material itself and more than itself at the same time. This may be a paradox. But there is indeed something in it. It is ironic too that it took a lot of young white men and women to refocus our attention on the importance of Negro folk material and folk artists. Without them I’m not sure we would have had a blues/folk revival in the 60s and 70s. Different times, places, and audiences are indeed important for a greater appreciation.—Rudy

posted 25 March 2007

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