Songs for Folks and Angels: An Interview with Odetta
By Caroline Horn
I knew that Odetta was a major figure in the folk music tradition. I knew the power of her rich alto voice and the impact it had had on everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom she marched at Selma, to the scores of singers who followed in her wake. What I didn't know, until I looked into it, was that she is celebrating her 50th year in the entertainment business with the release of her 27th album, Blues Everywhere I Go. Thus far in her career and at 69, she's still going strong she has, among many other things, toured all of the continents as an ambassador of American folk music, performed for two U.S. presidents and starred on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. She truly is an American icon and, appropriately, is featured in the book, I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America by Brian Lanker.
On November 17, 1999, Women in Music presented "An Evening with Odetta," during which I interviewed her in front of an audience; two weeks later, Odetta was gracious enough to do a second interview. The following emerged from these two warm, fascinating conversations.
You have been a shining light for folk music over many years. What light does folk music shine for you? What does that music have in it that calls to you in a special way?
I was a coloratura soprano at 13 and I was into classical music, for sure. If it wasn't classical, it wasn't. Oratorios, French art songs, German lieder, you know, all of it. I loved it, and I still love it.
And then, at the age of 19, I was in the chorus of Finian's Rainbow and that's when we went to San Francisco, and that's I was introduced to folk music. People would sit around with their guitars and sing songs that somebody said were folk songs. And these songs had more to do with what my life is or was than the classical area of music, ok?
At the time, I was really confused. I hated everything and everybody, including myself. Hollywood projected my community as a nothing and so that was authority telling me I was a nothing. And as we're growing up, we believe authoritymost of us do. I was reading in grammar school, a long time before I got to studying music, that the slaves were happy and singing all the time.
Mostly the folk music that I responded to [at first] was the prison work songs. The words didn't say "I hate you;" it was the energy that I felt in listening to Leadbelly, in listening to the songs recorded in Angola prisons and by working chain gangs and whateverthis energy of absolute hate. But on the other side of it, they were preserving their own lives, their own persons. They had something to say.
But I wasn't thinking this way back then. I am looking back on it and looking back on why that area of music would have resonated so much in my body, my heart and my soul.
How did you make the transition from jam sessions to gigs?
I was working as a housekeeper, living in at that time. I was loaned this guitar that was strung with barbed wirewell, not really, but my tender little fingers felt like it was barbed wire. And at the end of the day, I would practice my C and my G and my easy F chords. And with those three chords and a capo, honey, I was dynamite. I could play at least 50 songs.
You know how we just sort of meet guides? I started meeting people who actually played the guitar and sang folk songs, and I started hanging out with them.
One summer in San Francisco, my high school chum, Jo Mapes, brought by a woman by the name of Peggy Tolk-Watkins. She had a club on the Embarcadero, just in back of some railroad tracks, called the Tin Angel...[where] I was hired.
The grapevine in those days was fantastic. People did not depend on critics to tell them what to go see. Curiosity was alive, and they would go hear new things. However, critics did help boost my career. In fact, Bob Hogan of the San Francisco Chronicle came to the Tin Angel to write about the show. Let's say that came out on a Wednesday. Thursday, I get to the Tin Angel and I get to the door and there are people standing. It is full. Scared the spit out of me. I turned around and I went back to the car.
Were you scared to perform in those days?
My whole life was scared. You know, not just with performing. Now in those days, my fear was such that I didn't even start dressing until I had to be there. But I couldn't leave because your word is your bond. So I went sneaking in, or cowering in, and I went to my dressing room, which was the broom closet (laughs), with that very deep sink and the mops and everything.
So, every night the place was packed. And with the prison work songs, no one knew where I started or ended or the prisoners started or ended. I was able to get my rocks off, with all that hate. People would stand and scream while applauding. And I think that was to shuck off some of the negative vibes that I had put out there. By the time I would finish a show there, I was completely and totally dismantled.
I bet. Experiencing both what the music brought out of you and what you brought out of the audience must have been very overwhelming.
It's the places that I went to while performing, I mean, really deep into myself... being able to do that has healed me. My hate has been shaved down. You know, I'm not saying I'm not capable of hate, I'm sure that some of that is still there. But the music, the area, the history of where the music came from, it straightened my back and kinked my hair.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I learned that slaves were not happy and singing all the time. My people were not dumb, stupid and happy in slavery. I also learned about the resistance to the slavery. I also learned that it was all right to look like me instead of longing to look like Shirley Temple.
I worked in a girls' camp as a counselor one summer...and one night I had them cut my hair. I just said "keep cuttin'." And then I washed it. They said, "when you gonna get your hair back to natural?" And I said, "Now if you would like to rephrase that question...!" So what is called a natural or an afro today started out being called "an Odetta."
So, you're in San Francisco, selling out the Tin Angelthen what?
I got a call from Herbert Jacobi, who was a partner in a club here in New York called the Blue Angel.
Well, angels have certainly been there a lot... (laughs)
Yeah, if that's not a clue... (laughs)
There was a singer named Rose Murphey who couldn't get back from Europe in time for her gig at the Blue Angel, and he wanted to know if I could come and fill in for her
So I got dressed and packed and went to New York. It was August. I got so mad at New York. I was coming from San Francisco. I had a wool coat and wool suit and August just hit me. I go to the Blue Angelit's a supper club that has quite a reputation. Oh, I had graduated from the deep dish mop sink at the Tin Angel to a real dressing room at this place! I mean, it was a classy jernt! After the show, a knock comes at the door: there's Harry Belafonte. That was ten years before he had his own special on CBS. Later, he remembered and invited me on to that program, and that opened the door throughout the world.
You have carried an inspired and inspiring career over many decades. What has helped to give you longevity?
You know, performers are really gamblers. There's never any guarantee. You have to have a love for what you're doing, I think, and if not stubborness, just pure cussedness! (laughs)
One other thing that has kept me is that music is my worship.
Tell me more about how music relates to your spiritual side.
Even when I was a kid, before studying music and in church, it was very spiritual. We went to a Black Baptist church, and some of those ladies were really kind of mean and they would do all their amens and all that kind of stuff. And I didn't believe those folks until they started the music.
And today, I'm not religioushighly spiritual, but not religious. I've never figured out how it is that all of us are God's children but God only visits some of us, to tell them how to tell us what to do! Did he lose my telephone number? (laughs) I've met too many religious folks where religion is not their joy. It is to control whomever it is they control, and to be controlled by whomever is controlling them. But music is my school, [and] it is my healer.
You were a major voice in the civil rights movement. Do you feel that your music is still linked to any political or social causes today?
Well folk music is the history of us as people. In school, we learned about what somebody considered the heroes - and they were generally the persons who had their feet on our throats and made a lot of money, underpaid us and made those castles and built the railroads.
With just a slight bit of translation, it all fits. Before we were an agrarian culture, now we're into the mechanics of machines and stuff. But we're still being taken advantage of. And not until everything is fair in the world, and for everybody, is this music gonna go out of style. That's a shame to have to say that, but that's where that is.
And would you say the same thing about the blues?
They're cousins. Some of those blues songs, and folk music songsare they relevant today? Are people still looking for the perfect love? Are people still being abandoned? Are people still lonely? Are people still thrust out of jobs and work? When all those questions are answered with a negative, when everything is copasetic, then the songs will go out of date.
Looking back with the wisdom you've gathered, is there anything you would have done differently?
I think if I could do something different, I would order myself not to be so shy and so scared.
I bet a lot of people don't think of you that way, or even could imagine that you're a shy or scared woman, given your vibrant presence.
A lot of people thought of me as arrogant. Now, if they had said "boo," they would have seen a streak running down the street. (laughs) But that protected me.
Do you feel like that's changed? Has that shyness gone away?
I'm still a fairly shy person until I get into a situation like we were in the other night. I really surprised myself. I hadn't been in that kind of situation where I was asked to share whatever it was that might be interesting to those in the business of music, in the love of music, you know? And I surprised myself, my dear, I just couldn't stop talking, evidently!
And, you know, for young women coming up, it's so inspirational to hear your story.
Well, I hope so. But if you write down only one thing I've said, make it this: Be careful of those who are spotlight-seekers and star-fuckers. There was a woman [I met recently]she was a blood-sucker. As we were talking and laughing and whatever, she was serious to the point of deadly. And she saw me giving a card to someone and asked me for a card and I said no. She would just suck energy. I could tell there was no appreciation of anything; it was only what she needed. I'll stay away from that one, I'll tell you.
It's good that you have that radar.
You know, people give you clues. And you tell these young women to look out for them and stay away. You don't have to put 'em down, just stay the hell away from them, or run like hell.
We're all in areas of visibility. And a lot of people need the strength that you have even just to get out and do what you're doing. They want some of that strength. I just wish that I had been somewhere near this place when Janis Joplin was alive. I mean, performers have gotten to the point where they have an entourage around them to keep them from people. Now, they're performing cause they need to be with people, they need association. And they have this entourage that's keeping them away from people, and who's giving them smack, or whatever it is that they're taking. And after a while, they're the loneliest people.
Be aware of spotlight-seekers, star-fuckers and blood-suckers. Maybe the only kind thing they'll do is give you a clue.
And how do you cultivate that sensitivity to the clues?
Well, you already believe in yourself to start writing and performing and producing. So, listen to yourself some more'cause you already started listening to yourself. Listen to yourself some more.
© 2000 Caroline Horn. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.