Odetta: The Voice of Folk

Written by: Imani Diggs

“The better we feel about ourselves, 

the fewer times we have to knock someone else down to feel taller.


Early Life

Ms. Odetta grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the era of the Great Depression. Despite the times, her community found the joy in life despite their conditions. She speaks on growing up finding joy and encouragement in the way her people counteracted hardship with optimism through song. 

“You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life… those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life.” -Odetta

Odetta’s father unfortunately passed away, causing her mother to uproot the family cross country to Los Angeles, California. During their train ride, Ms. Holmes recounts that she experienced her first racist encounter when her family was asked to move to the back of the train because they were colored. However she persisted. Ms. Odetta used the same persevering spirit her people used in their music for all of her life experiences. She began to take interest in using her own musical talents to contribute to the culture in elementary school. The impact she had through her gift was so substantial, her elementary school teacher encouraged her to get formal training to further her talent.

Ms. Holmes began training but stated, ” School taught me how to count and taught me how to put together a sentence.. but as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music.” 




  • Graduated from Los Angeles City College with a degree in Music.
  • Obtained a role in a traveling choruses production of “Finian’s Rainbow”
  • Left the theater company to move to New York City and pursue performing folk and blues music.


  • Recorded her first solo album “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues”
  • Recognized in Time Magazine and by Bob Dylan
  • Recorded two more albums “At the Gate of Horn” and “My Eyes Have Seen”.
  • Performed on the Lincoln Memorial steps during the March on Washington
  • Performed at Carnegie Hall


  • Music recognized as “The Soundtrack of the Civil Rights”
  • Continued to record albums such as “Movin’ It On”, “Blues Everywhere I Go”, and “Looking for a Home”.
  • Awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton
  • Awarded Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress
  • Recorded last album at 74 years old, “I’m Gonna Let It Shine”





“House of the Rising Sun”

Odetta Holmes created her impact based off of the natural essence that was on the inside of her. In a world that encouraged blackness to conform to what was considered pure and right (whiteness), Ms. Odetta stayed true to the core of who she was. She used music as her gateway to influence a myriad of other facets of life. She demolished hindering structures through music and future generations of  artists, like myself, now have an easier time making their way through the music industry.  She was a bright light that tapped into the natural innovative spirit of the Black woman. Her legacy thrives and prospers through the lives of young Black women who use her strength to continue to dismantle systems of oppression, hatred and racism through song. 

Ase, Ms Odetta


Imani Diggs

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