Odetta was an American singer, actress, guitarist, lyricist, and a civil and human rights activist.
Odetta was born on December 31, 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama to Reuben Holmes and Flora Sanders. In 1937, Odetta and her mother moved to Los Angeles after the death of her father. In 1940, Odetta’s teacher noticed her vocal talents. She stated: “A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe I should study.”
She began vocal training at thirteen. After graduating from Belmont High School, she studied music at Los Angeles City College. After traveling to San Francisco, she began to appreciate folk music; she learned how to play the guitar and began to perform folk songs. Within a few years her career took off and she moved to New York City during the 1950s. During this time, she released records Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues(1956) and At the Gate of Horn(1957). Odetta performed at the Newport (Rhode Island) folk festivial four times during 1959–65, and appeared on television and in several films. In 1963, Odetta sang at the March on Washington led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1999, Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given in the arts in the United States. In 2oo3, the Library of Congress named her as a Living Legend.
“The better we feel about ourselves, the fewer times we have to knock somebody else down to feel tall.”
Odetta won the Sylvania Award for Excellence in 1959, presented the key of Birmingham in 1965, and received the Duke Ellington Fellowship from Yale University.