Catch Her Melody: Odetta
Miss Penny Writes
Folk Music Queen
It’s somewhat extreme, but not farfetched, to call Odetta a perfectionist. She’s been known to work on interpretations of popularized ballads for extended periods of time- she needed to master the songs and make them her own. I imagine Odetta's desire was to be completely immersed in music, her submergence would make her performances look and feel second nature. The lyrics would pour out of her the way water spills out of cups. Her fingers move like clockwork as she strummed her guitar. Her vocals cause her throat to expand and vibrate, the way railroad tracks do on hot days. The aesthetics of her musical immersion.
Way before Odetta became a musical figure of the Civil Rights Movement, Odetta and her family uprooted from Birmingham to Los Angeles. She took with her the love of music, specifically traditional Afro-American songs and artistry, across country. While in California, a teacher witnessed Odetta’s talents and convinced Odetta and her mother to sign her up for classical training, the voice lessons landed her a spot in the singing group, Madrigal Singers. After high school, Odetta moved on to Los Angeles City College to study music. After college she became part of the chorus of a travelling show called Finian’s Rainbow.
One night after working the Finian show, she experienced a folk music session in a small coffee shop in San Francisco. This moment fueled Odetta’s musical genius, she was so affected by that folk session that she eventually quit her job with the travelling show to stay in San Francisco. She found a folk club in the city and sung folk and blues there until her departure in 1953. Odetta made her move to New York and became a headliner at Blue Angel, a famous nightclub in Manhattan. Her performances throughout New York and California would eventually award her the opportunity to successfully produce her own albums and tour across the world.
Odetta was drawn to the art of music when she was just a little girl. She grew up during the Great Depression and in the South, the combination would eventually fuel her affinity for work and prison songs. Oral history affirms prison and work songs are part of a traditional and spiritual practice that can be traced back to Africa. The music's exact history and timeline is murky given the facts we do know about colonization. Most believe songs traveled from West Africa to America during slavery. In America, the songs were sung by slaves to share messages and stories, uplift each other, and detail the inhumane practice of slavery. Odetta would eventually refer to these songs as liberation songs.
An important liberation song in the history of slavery and the civil rights movement is Water, Boy. It is a slave work song, a somber reminder of the conditions black people were forced to live through. Water is as valuable as saffron on the field of a plantation, but I assume it's absence was as normalized as the sun rising and setting everyday. I assume the enslaved weren't given enough water (or anything, if anything) to keep them in good health as forced laborers. I'm sure the white overseers and slaveowners made sure to keep their thirst quenched, though. It's been said, they demanded water and would get the attention of the waterboy by singing Water, boy where you hidin?
Today when this song is performed it is titled “Waterboy” instead of “Water, Boy” and I equate this to trying to soften up the history, but let’s not forget what’s true. Said as an order. Water is needed, boy go get it. Slaves sang this song ok the plantation, inmates past sang this some when they were put to work. They sang this song with an innate need to preserve its meaning, to bring awareness to terrible work and living conditions. The lyrics are commentary on the injustices faced by black people.
During Odetta’s public performances of Water, Boy, she makes the sound of a hammer hitting against rock. Odetta’s contralto voice and emotion-fueled additions to the track left a lasting impression on the American people. Her performance made it easy to visualize the scene: black people working with the heat of the sun warming their skin, working non-stop. Manual labor, slave labor, on a hot summer’s day. Both their body and minds are tired. A young black boy is summoned for water, he knows his role and is aware of his fate. If it wasn't his current circumstance, soon he is to one day take on the same labor as the older men. He has already taken on the labor of existing in a black body.
Odetta’s performance of this song visually represents musical immersion. Odetta allowed this song to use her as a vessel to bring forth a message that change was needed. She would fight for it using her best weapon. Odetta had the voice, soul and skill it took to propel Water, Boy into a theme song of the civil rights movement. Her surrender to music supported the black men and women who rose up during the contentious sixties.
Odetta received notoriety for performing at political rallies, protests and demonstrations. Her love of folk music and quest for equality would get the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr. He referred to her as the queen of American Folk music. Odetta accompanied him and 250,000 people on the March on Washington. She sang “I’m On My Way” from her debut album, Spiritual Trilogy. She was part of a lineup of other influential artists such as Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson and Harry Belafonte. She has been dubbed one of the greatest American folk singers of all time and a great influence on the generation of civil rights activists who fought for justice during the Jim Crow era. She’s been named an inspiration to many folk and blues artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.
Odetta once said, “School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together but as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music.” Odetta kept up the tradition of schooling people through folk music on because she knew what was at stake. Lessons learned on the human spirit were too valuable to keep to herself. She communicated her ideas with the stroke of her guitar strings. Her classroom was wherever she decided to perform.The time it took to master each song wasn’t only for self pleasure, but also to ensure the message of the music was clear for the listeners, too.