Odetta: The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement

More on Odetta

Odetta Holmes, better known monogamously as Odetta was a American folk and blues singer born on December 31, 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama. After her father died in 1937, she and her mother Flora moved to Los Angeles where she was discovered to be particularly talented at singing and began operatic training at age 13. However in this time, opera companies in American would still not permit African American singers on their stage. This led to her professional debut in 1944 and joined the national touring company Finian’s Rainbow in 1949. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Odetta resonated heavily with the civil rights movement and was very vocal about it. The music she made was popular among protestors in the movement, even Martin Luther King Jr., in 1961, had called Odetta the voice of “The Queen of American Folk Music”. Also in 1961, she returned to Alabama to sing for the marchers that were marching from Selma to Montgomery and returned again in 1970 to record her album ODETTA Sings.


Odetta in 1961

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Odetta was an inspiration for artists and fans alike. Famous singers such as Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan name her as having a strong influence over their musical careers. Civil rights movement figures such as Rosa Parks and MLK Jr. described themselves as fans as well. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded her with the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts. In 2004, she received the “Visionary Award” at the Kennedy Center and in 2005, Odetta received the “Living Legend Award” from the Library of Congress. She toured with jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux and received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” that same year. In 2007 her album, Gonna Let it Shine was nominated for a grammy and that same year Odetta was named Traditional Folk Artist of the Year.


Odetta’s health started to deteriorate in 2008 and by Novemeber she had been hospitalized. With hopes of performing at President Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009, she unfortunately died of heart disease on December 2, 2008.

One of Odetta’s last performances in 2008


“Remembering Odetta, The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” Www.ascap.com, www.ascap.com/news-events/articles/2018/02/odetta-legacy.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Odetta.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Dec. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Odetta.

Vleck, Philip Van. “Odetta: Album Discography.” AllMusic, www.allmusic.com/artist/odetta-mn0000888730/discography.

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