The Civil Rights Movement produced some of the most iconic music ever created. While protest music is not a popular genre on most streaming services today, it was a driving force which energized a people to push back against organized oppression and fight for the right to exist. Ian Zack’s Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest tracks the career trajectory of one of the nation’s most powerful, albeit quiet, folk singers, Odetta Felious. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Nina Simone’s “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” are just a few of the more famous songs and artists that come to mind when considering which songs score such pivotal moments in Black history. But folk music has its place in this listening party that is less talked about. One such giant who belongs among the pantheon of artists whose lifeblood surged within the Civil Rights era is Odetta.
Despite her notorious performance anxiety, Zack places Odetta as a central, folk figurehead who sang her way to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. Commonplace prejudice against Black people coupled with the pervasive Euro-centric perspective on the standard of beauty meant that Odetta’s brown skin, round shape and kinky hair were constant highlights in her performance reviews. Her classical training and extraordinary, self-taught guitar play were often afterthoughts to her appearance as “a buxom Negro lass” or “a kinky-haired, pleasant, round-faced, chubby gal.” White writers, not familiar with the importance of Odetta’s existence, failed to realize her presentation as part of the protest. The afro, a sign of Black pride, was worn by Odetta while singing about Black pain and conflict. Zack’s portrayal of Odetta definitively zooms out to take in more than just her physical appearance, considering also her physical presence as an offense to those who felt she didn’t belong, ultimately supporting the statement that Odetta couldn’t be anywhere else.
Moving in circles of performers with left-leaning beliefs, Odetta spent her time studying folk songs, slave songs, and spirituals to better understand their meaning and power. It was what she called her “true education.” She then used what she learned to inform how she sang; she would even alter songs slightly to drive the point home to listeners, determined to return the favor. Changing the lyrics and even the delivery of a song turned it into a bonafide lesson on race. By revising the words in the chain gang song “Another Man Done Gone” from “He killed another man, He killed another man, an apparent reference to the convict’s crime, Odetta made it, They killed another man, They killed another man, keeping the focus on the barbarous [justice/penal] system itself.” She also sang the song without accompaniment to make sure the message was clear. Odetta used music as the teaching instrument to fight back against the lies and stereotypes about Black people perpetuated by discriminatory history books and Hollywood studios.
The most potent device of her plight was, of course, her voice. Already deep, she was able to use her opera training to boom into the hearts of listeners. She resonated with artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, and Maya Angelou. Ultimately, Odetta would go on to become a leader of the 1960s folk music revival. It was some time before critics began speaking more pointedly about her singing, though. The 1960 March issue of the New York Times wrote, “Why is it that the most glorious new voice in American folk music is heard so rarely on the air? Odetta…has a voice so large and a physical presence so commanding that recordings have yet to do her complete justice.”
Zack’s telling of Odetta’s story is heavily populated by conversations with friends, family, and contemporary musicians about her impact on the genre and the political landscape. One drawback to this approach to Odetta is that her narrative is so heavily steeped in the context of the time period. There are sections of the text that speak abstractly about the contemporary state of music and social climate such that, at times, Odetta herself feels like an afterthought. However, if there is nothing else readers come away with, it is how her musical presence was critical. None could state it better than Belafonte, who is generally thought of as one of folk music’s main influencers:
“My real thrust into the music of the peoples of the world was deeply, deeply stamped right when I first heard Odetta sing… When I listened to Odetta sing, ‘Look over yonder, hot sun turnin’ over,’ that shout, that drive released a mechanism in me, because there was a place I belonged.”
Both Zack and Belafonte had it right: Odetta’s effect on folk music and Black culture is immeasurable and deserves much attention. Though she may have closed her eyes onstage, she belted out notes that told stories and transformed peoples’ idea of what music could represent.
For a glimpse of Odetta’s power, watch her live performance of “Waterboy” below:
Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest
By Ian Zack
Published April 14, 2020