Odetta Gordon
National Visionary

December 31, 1930 - December 2, 2008
Born in Birmingham, Alabama

Singer, Actress, Civil Rights Activist

Singer, actress, civil rights activist, and folk music legend Odetta is one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. She has toured the world singing folk, blues, Negro spirituals, jazz, and work and protest songs, telling the stories of America’s southern experience. Her 1950s and 1960s classic recordings of He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands, Amazing Grace, and This Little Light of Mine became folk and spiritual classics throughout the world. Deeply moving her audiences with a message of hope, love, and social change, Odetta is credited with inspiring some of the great performers of the second half of the 20th century—Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Janis Joplin, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Joan Baez. Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading are among her notable “musical daughters.”

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on December 31, 1930, she and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 6 years old. Soon, she was enrolled in piano and voice lessons and was being trained classically. At 18, she joined the chorus of the road company tour of Finian’s Rainbow. From that point on, Odetta Felious was a folk singer. Her remarkable performances soon caught the attention of Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and blues great Josh White. It wasn’t long before she was performing at the Newport Folk Festival. By 1960, she had already played to a full house at Carnegie Hall. Observes Belafonte in the foreword he wrote for her Vanguard album, My Eyes Have Seen: “Few . . . possess that fine understanding of a song’s meaning which transforms it from a melody into a dramatic experience. Odetta, who has influenced me greatly in this area of dramatic interpretation, is just such an artist. The sensitivity and belief which she brings to her performances surpass even her vocal gifts, which are of the highest quality.”

By the 1960s, Odetta had distinguished herself as a talented actress. She made her film debut in Faulkner's Sanctuary, appearing with Yves Montand and Lee Remick. The 1960 film was directed by Tony Richardson. On stage, director John Wood cast her in the role of Tituba in The Crucible for the Stratford Shakespeare Company in Ontario.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Throughout her life, Odetta has felt obligated to use her success for social change. Active in the Civil Rights Movement, she sang at the historic March on Washington in 1963, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, and repeated her performance at the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1983. Odetta performed for President John F. Kennedy on the nationally televised civil rights special, “Dinner with the President.” She vehemently protested against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Her involvement with countless grassroots efforts to improve the human condition has garnered her the World Folk Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

She has performed all over the world in concert halls, clubs, and universities; acted in films and theater; sang with symphony orchestras, the Boston Pops and celebrated choirs; and starred in countless international television specials. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts and Humanities. Odetta is also the recipient of many lifetime achievement awards and honorary doctorates. In 1999, she released her Grammy-nominated Blues Everywhere I Go. In 2001, she released Lookin’ for a Home, her tribute to Leadbelly. She continues to record and perform throughout the United States and Europe, remaining folk music’s grand dame.


Odetta's Wikipedia page

Roundtable discussion with Odetta

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