In a 2000 interview with Danny Murray for the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame, Odetta Holmes (that’s Odetta to you, me and everybody else) remarked, “We didn’t recognize back then that there was no way to put up a wall between one music and another,” referring to the blending and borrowing occurring in the early 1960s among artists playing folk music and artists playing blues music, as well as the overlap in the genres’ fanbases (one mostly white, one mostly Black). Odetta’s quip is a bit of an oversimplification: She’s right that you can’t stop artists from weaving aspects of the music they love into their own music, but industry gatekeepers can (and absolutely do) craft and cement narratives that sweep the contributions of an individual or of an entire community under the rug and refuse to promote artists who don’t support that narrative. To wit: Odetta’s music is not easy to categorize or neatly slot into any one genre, and in tandem with her one-of-a-kind voice, this was what made her great — but it was also one of the reasons she was never promoted to the degree she deserved to be, nor as popular or well-known as she should have been. Praise and acclaim for this sort of genre-bending was by and large a privilege reserved for white faces singing Black music.
Odetta truly deserved a better career than she got. The short version of this story is that with no consistent label partnership or a manager truly invested in promoting her (two issues at least somewhat attributable to being a Black woman in 1960s America), she never attained the level of market saturation needed to really broaden her fanbase. And yet, when Odetta was famous, she was famous: selling out concerts across America and around the world, appearing on television and in movies, exerting a powerful influence on the folk movement and on countless musicians. But her fame was rather short-lived, and she never achieved the renown that her contemporaries — who were quick to cite her as inspiration — did. Even when she was in the spotlight, she was under the radar: Though she stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and performed a set, the only audio footage that exists of her performance is under a minute of “I’m On My Way” (other artists’ sets were recorded in full).
“I’m not a real folk singer,” Odetta once said. “I’m a musical historian. I’m a city kid who has admired an area and got into it.” She came to traditional American music later in life after a childhood spent training to become the next Marian Anderson, beginning private opera lessons at age 13 and later earning a degree in classical music from Los Angeles City College. This studied relationship to folk and blues music has always made her feel a bit like an Alan Lomax figure, albeit an archivist who preserved through creation rather than collection. She wasn’t the sort to pin butterflies into place beneath glass; she kept them alive and let them stretch their wings. Odetta gave a voice to people who had been denied theirs; she put a face to apocryphal songs born out of pain and from the land enslaved and imprisoned Black Americans were made to work — and her choice to use her talent in this way feels especially important, beautiful and significant given American history’s erasure of Black Americans’ contributions to folk music. Her renditions of songs like “Waterboy” are anything but removed, academic or paternalistic: She uses these songs as a medium, a way to reach into the past in order to reach a place of profound empathy and deeper understanding. And her commitment to fully inhabiting this music extended far beyond research or merely getting into the right “mindset” before a performance; said TIME Magazine in a 1960 profile, “What distinguished [Odetta] from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to recreate the feeling of her folk songs; to understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledgehammer.” It’s little wonder Dr. King dubbed her “the queen of American folk music,” and musicians ranging from Bob Dylan (who told Playboy in 1978: “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta ... Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.”) to Carly Simon (quoted in Ian Zack’s Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest as saying, “I didn’t know I wanted to sing until I heard Odetta.”) have been quick to cite Odetta’s influence on their style, approach and song choice, speaking to the power of folk music — but, more specifically, Odetta’s treatment of these songs — to connect people to other people, to new feelings and to new ways of thinking about American music and America. “In folk music, complex emotions are spoken about with such simplicity that it’s the highest form of art to me,” she told the New York Times back in 1965. “You can unclutter things.”
Odetta sang about the worst aspects of America, but represented the most idealized version of the country in the process: talented, self-invented, determined, an amalgamation of influences and knowledge gathered through curiosity and creativity. She sang songs that, as a Black woman from Alabama, her enslaved ancestors likely sang — but in a voice shaped by operatic training airlifted straight from Western Europe. She’s American music in a nutshell: the frisson between cultures and communities producing something painful, beautiful and singular.
Odetta’s powerful approach to — and influence on — 1960s folk music will always cast a bit of a shadow over her blues albums, which have, for decades, been characterized as less important, less significant contributions. It’s a justifiable position: Many artists have covered “Weeping Willow Blues”; fewer have covered songs originally sung by chain gangs, or songs their own fans wrote after being inspired by their music (see: Odetta Sings Dylan). Yet albums like Odetta and the Blues do feel of a piece with her point of view as an artist. The songs that populate this album are 1920s blues and jazz standards sung by the likes of Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt, Leroy Carr and other titans of the time and genre. Most are traditional, unattributable to any one songwriter — but all are linked to Black musicians. In this way, the album feels like an important (and understandable) aspect of her quest to show America the myriad ways this country’s music wouldn’t be what it is without Black Americans.
Odetta and the Blues is also just a great listen. The album was recorded over a two-day period in April 1962 in the wake of a legal scandal that involved fulfilling her contract to Riverside before leaving Vanguard for RCA (she also planned to record blues for this label and, in fact, recorded a blues album — Sometimes I Feel Like Cryin’ — for RCA only two weeks later). In the very best ways, you can hear the compressed recording schedule: Listening to the album front-to-back is an experience akin to sitting in a club listening to an incredible band play a tight set. It’s polished, but not precious or stuffy; everyone sounds loose, in the zone and like they’re having a great time. And Odetta’s voice absolutely shines on the songs made famous (or at least notable) by Ma Rainey: “Oh, Papa,” “Hogan’s Alley” and “Oh, My Babe.”
Still, at the time, the album wasn’t favorably received (as previously mentioned, perhaps unsurprisingly, given Odetta’s other material and the context in which 1960s America was hearing it). The dominant contemporary criticism was that Odetta just can’t sing these songs the same way as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey did, and that she wasn’t a “real blues singer.” I find both assertions to be somewhat lazy lines of criticism, though I’ll definitely concede that when it comes to this album, “blues” is a bit of a misnomer. Odetta and the Blues is truly more of a jazz record, and though Odetta has a voice that works with and merits the highly polished, produced, professional arrangements this album boasts, Odetta and the Blues lacks the primal power of her interpretations of American folk songs. Throughout her life, she spoke at length about her love of blues music, but the passion doesn’t translate in quite the same way — though in an ironic (and undoubtedly frustrating for Odetta) turn of events, after critics filed the blues albums she recorded in the early 1960s under Mediocre, in the 2000s Odetta experienced a kind of late-in-life career revival for a series of… blues albums (Blues Everywhere I Go, Looking for a Home). Whether or not you believe Odetta to be a “real blues singer” or think that Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sang these songs better, on Odetta and the Blues — as on every song she sang — Odetta makes each track sound timeless and true, but also utterly, entirely her own. I think that’s the hallmark of a true and truly unique talent — and a sign that the artist in question understands the assignment, as it were: to find the throughlines between their perspective and the art itself; to preserve the original message and add one of your own, like a constructive game of Telephone. There’s an art to being a cover artist and an art to being an archivist.
Odetta’s versatility, fluidity and staunch commitment to directing her focus toward whatever music most interested her in that moment in time — like these forays into 1920s and 1930s blues music — were her greatest strengths as an artist, but also yet another reason she never had the commercial success she deserved. We’re not always generous or understanding when it comes to accepting our favorite musicians’ desire to expand or evolve, even if what we perceive as a divergence is important, technically accomplished or “good.” Odetta knew this, saying in a 1971 interview with Pacifica Radio station WBAI-FM: “We as an audience look towards performers as a ‘consistent.’ An absolute impossible thing in our lives, or in nature … We don’t want them to change in any kind of way, because they’ve deceived us. They’ve left us behind.” It’s funny, the desire to cage and control what we love, to restrict its freedom so it always remains as it was when we first realized we loved it, instead of granting it the agency to keep growing and evolving — to be true to itself, instead of beholden to you. In all of the best ways, that’s exactly what Odetta did through her music — and what folk music does to, through and for all of us: give us the power to link the past and present, to find and make new meaning from old words.
Susannah Young is a self-employed communications strategist, writer and editor living in Chicago. Since 2009, she has also worked as a music critic. Her writing has appeared in the book Vinyl Me, Please: 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection (Abrams Image, 2017) as well as on VMP’s Magazine, Pitchfork and KCRW, among other publications.