I am so honored to be able to get the opportunity to share some time with you Odetta. So, tell us where it all began?
I was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, AL, Dec. 31, 1930. My mother was "given" to my father just like in the olden days as children were given to different clans for political reasons and on. My mother was quite young and quite innocent. My father, Ruben Holmes, was working in a steel mill. My mother’s father was a friend of Ruben Holme’s and Ruben had lost his wife and had a son. He needed someone to take care of the house, cook and take care of his son. So my grandfather, Papa Jim, said you can marry, Flora ( that’s my mother). Flora knew nothing from nothing and finally got away and when she got away she was pregnant. She had me, fortunately, [laughing] and then maybe about three years later or so, she married my stepfather. I really lucked out with parents. My stepfather later contracted [an illness] from working in the mills. It was not tuberculosis, even though this was the time tuberculosis was running rampant throughout the country. The doctors suggested that he go to a drier climate. Now, I don’t know if Los Angeles was a drier climate, but there were people from "Bam" (Alabama) there – neighbors and family. My father and brother went out to Los Angeles. They found a duplex where one side lived my uncle, we moved on the other side and Alabama people were all around. My stepfather, bless his soul, was in the hospital most of the time. I think they let him come home [from the hospital] because he was so depressed. They let him come home to his family.
Did you spend most of your childhood in Los Angeles?
I went through school in Los Angeles. When we went back to Alabama, it was for something like a death in the family. In Alabama, we saw the signs. You know the signs I am talking about. The signs said "colored and white." [This is referring to signs that were omnipresent in the Southern United States that up until 1954, legally separated facilities, restaurants , etc. by race] Our family said that they needed to send somebody with us, so that we would not make a mistake of not paying attention to the signs. They would take us to the movies so that we would be sure to go up to the balconies where [blacks] sat. Now, back in Los Angeles, it was the same thing, it was just that they didn’t have any signs. It was "up south."
"Up South." That is a very accurate way to put it…
Odetta, when did you and your family realize that you had musical talent?
I am going through school in Los Angeles and about the age of eleven, one of the teachers found I had a singing voice that was "interesting." She talked to my mother and my mother put together some nickels and dimes so that I could have voice lessons. She talked to the teacher and the teacher told her that maybe we should wait until I was 13, because boys and girls bodies are changing and on and on. So, at the age of 13, Mama started paying for voice lessons. I was then in the classical music area. I loved classical music. Now, in growing up, whenever my stepfather was home, every week he would take us to the black theatre. This was at the end of the big band era. So we had heard all those big bands, including Nat King Cole when he started going to smaller groups…and on the radio when I was growing up, we had rhythm and blues stations, we had the classical music stations, the top ten popular stations and we had the Grand Ole Opry and we had The Metropolitan Opera. This was before pictures on the television - it was just the radio. We had radio drama. I still love the radio. Every week, as the change of bands came over, daddy would take us to the theatre whenever he was home. It’s no wonder that I am halfway decent, because I grew up with some incredible music!
When the Metropolitan Opera came on the radio, it was permissible to sit and listen to the entire opera on the premise that we got up and finished everything we were suppose to so. In the evening time, it made no difference what was happening, daddy was going to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. And I was one snob honey, if it wasn’t classical, it just wasn’t.
[Laughing] I went through that period too!
So, honey you relate [laughing also]
I was not going to listen to that stuff. These people all playing their banjos and whatever. Years later when I got interested in folk music, because the Grand Ole Opry was in fact having folk music, but it has just gotten more sophisticated these days. It grew. You know those were people from the mountains and from the south performing at the Opry. . Blacks were not represented there. Not at the Grand Ole Opry. Daddy listened and I knew I wasn’t going to listen. But when I got older and I started to get into folk music, it was amazing how much I had actually heard and retained from those Grand Ole Opry programs. Lyrics, songs, words to songs and all. Just fantastic.
What precipitated your interest in folk music?
OK. At the age of nineteen I was in "Finian’s Rainbow" in Los Angeles at the Greek Theatre… In those days, the grapevine was fantastic. There was a woman there I had gone to junior high school with. Her name was Jo Mapes. And she was the one who introduced me to folk music. She found me and we started hanging out. Now this was the end of the "bohemian" period. You know, later they became known as the "beatniks;" this was the same community, they just called themselves something else. When they would close the bars at 2:00am, we would go up to Jo and her husband’s apartment. Oh honey, it was very romantic. I had never gone anywhere and here the beams were slanted and there was wine around. I was a very cheap date in those days. Two-fifths of wine and I was gone! [laughing] People sat round with their guitars and sing. We sang all night long. And the songs they were singing meant something to me. Something that was deeper than say a song a teacher had given to me to learn
( Odetta sings a bit of an Italian aria)…now that [the aria] somehow or another didn’t match up with this little black girl.
Oh yes! I remember. I trained as an opera singer for a few years and though it taught me discipline, it did not often reach my soul. But I must admit, I still love a good death-bed aria scene. [laughing]
Oh, I know! [Laughing]
I went back to Los Angeles after that stint. It was amazing. And Lea, maybe you have witnessed this. Each time you are interested in a new area in life, somehow or another there are guides. And sometimes they don’t even know they are guides and we don’t even know how we find each other and they just appear.
I cannot tell you how many people like that have come to me ever since I have expressed an interest in blues…
At the time that I was getting interested in this music that said " I hate everything and everybody including myself." That [sentiment] really brought me in there. There was no way I could just say the things I was thinking, but I could sing them. I got my rocks off in those prison songs [laughing] and they healed me. Some of those songs I cannot even sing anymore. I go back to one of them and now I can’t sing it. I know what it was when I was first doing them, the hate I was feeling, and if I do it now, I feel as if I am cheating somebody. "John Henry" was the first song that got up and walked out of my door.
So after all of these experiences, did you decide to just pick up a guitar and say "Now I am going to be a folk singer?"
No. Now, remember the reference to meeting guides? Well, this lady loaned me a guitar and showed me C, G and an easy F, and with that and a capo I was ready!
Ahh…"an easy F!" Mastering the guitar has eluded me. All I need are those three chords too…you have to show me that ‘easy F’. [laughing]
[laughing] I started practicing. I was working as housekeeper. When I finished for the evening, my friend Jane -- she was studying ballet at Lester Horton’s Dance Studio at a time when you had to love it if you were black, because you knew no one was gonna bring you in anywhere to do ballet if you were black. So when Jane would get home, I would call her. I would put the phone down and play my C, G and F and play a song for her. Then I started meeting people. This was at a good time. At this time, we were taking around petitions to "Save the Rosenbergs." It seems that always around the area of folk music, for me, have been people who have been "aware" socially…and wanting to improve the life of our citizens. They called us "reds" and "pinks" and all manner of things. There was time when I would sing for benefits and parties and they would raise money. There was a time when Paul Robeson was coming out to Los Angeles and he wanted to talk to the ministers out there focusing on how we could bind together our black community in order to get better treatment. They asked me to sing on this program. He had been a real hero of mine.
Paul Robeson. What an honor. He is a personal hero of mine also. Odetta, you have always shared company with ‘the greats.’ Tell us about Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger and…
…they helped my career. I had been singing for quite a time by the time I met Pete Seeger. Harry Belafonte came to the Blue Angel in New York City. Herbert Jacobi had invited him. First , there was the "Tin Angel " in San Francisco. I had been in "show business" – I hate that. I was never in "show business" – but anyway, I had been in show business for two weeks [after getting a fantastic review singing at The Tin Angel] when I got invited to sing at the Blue Angel in NYC. I didn’t realize that people would kill to get into this cabaret…I was a girl, I just didn’t know. Now, after one of the concerts at The Blues- Angel, a knock came at the door. I could hear Mr. Jacobi’s voice outside the door. My eyes are down and then I am looking up, but my eyes are not stopping where they usually stop [on Mr. Jacobi], my eyes kept going up and it was Harry Belafonte. And of course I had heard of him and seen him before….
It is about nine or ten years later when he [Harry Belafonte] did his CBS television show and invited me on and we did Carnegie Hall. After doing the television show, it opened doors for me around the world. Mr. Belafonte has always brought people that he has admired into his spotlight and introduced them to his audiences. He is a very generous and a loving man that way.
After you did the TV show with Harry Belafonte and your career took off, you reached a place many women in the folk genre rarely get to, especially African American women. There were not many black women that were recognized as folk singers…
…that we know of…I must say that! That we know of. There are [black] women and men from yesterday and today, doing the music, the blues, etc., Maybe Folkways will record them. Maybe the Library of Congress will record them. Maybe The Smithsonian will record them. But then someone comes along. "The great white hope" comes along, knows their songs and then they’re out there. I don’t suppose I am telling you anything you don’t already know.
How does it make you feel when you see that happening?
Well, it’s a part of the package. It never is a surprise.
The surprise would be when someone like Tracy Chapman actually gets out there. Now, she is my heart. I know that had I looked like a dog, sounded the way I did and I was white, I would be out there. It is not paranoia, it is observation.
These people who learned the black music…many of them lose track and pretend that they got that in their mother’s womb doing that music. [Laughing]
Like they made it up themselves. There is nothing you can say that Elvis did came out of Scotland, Ireland or England. So where did he get it?
Your were active during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s. Your performances during this time were so powerful. What type of contributions do you feel your music made during this time in our history?
I was hurting about us. Then I started to read the history of the people and where this [black] music came from. I then straightened my back and kinked up my hair. I washed it and left it natural – called an "Odetta." In those days I had to be very careful about the barber I went to. Many guys liked it very much, but some were just curious.
[laughing] I am getting off-track though, you did ask me a question…
I was coming along at the same time as the Movement started and people called on me to participate. When I was starting in 1952 and 1953, people were aware of the focus on equality. Through the music, we begin to bring our ownselves into view. That was why people in the South were getting themselves together to [fight]. They knew of me and my work, so when they were getting money together or organizing, they would call on me. It was like we learned and grew together and focused together. I am not really a "joiner," but I am one who supports. Honey, I am one helluva supporter! [laughing]
I don’t have the patience to sit and talk to people who have to give you their resume when we needed to be talking about those four children who were killed in a church. I don’t want to hear about your resume. I want us to sit and talk about what it is we can do to keep the light on those terrible deeds. I don’t care if you went to Harvard, etc. I don’t want to know. I want to know what we are going to do.
When you look at what is happening now with race relations and all of the energy you put into making a change with your music, I mean, we have ‘come a long way baby,’ but it still seems we also have a long way to go…
It seems that we have made strides, but it seems that people are chipping away at all of what we have worked for. There was a time when people felt guilty [for their racist beliefs], but now it seems we have gotten to the point where it is ‘so what.’ That is the climate we are in now.
I understand very well. There is so much we can say about this….
Getting back to the music. Do you consider yourself a folk singer? Blues singer?
Well, my basis is folk music, but then the blues is a part of that – of what that agenda is.
Within the agrarian culture, we had our work songs and spirituals. Then we started moving to big cities and we brought the music with us. Then we got city blues and gospel. Still telling our story.
We talked about many of the messages that were in the blues that you felt were lost during the revival of the 60’s (and today). Is this what prompted you to do a purely blues recording?
No. I have done a blues record before. The one I did before, I did not have the knowledge I have now. I do believe that blues songs are more than the double entendre. There are songs that I would not do. You know, the "cut me, shoot me"…songs. I just didn’t want to do that sort of thing. In the 60’s, I was completely into folk music, so I am not an expert on the blues, only on my take on the blues. So, when I sing on my blues record, I would find the songs that speak to me.
Since we are talking about the blues, my favorite subject, it has been 14 years since you made your last studio recording. What motivated you to do your latest and critically acclaimed recording "Blues Everywhere I Go?"
Well, there is this remarkable, young musician, Mark Carpentieri, who has a record company. He came and he talked to me and told me that I should think about doing the blues. You know, this was right up my alley, a blues record. So we got it together. Now, let me tell you something Lea, I think my guardian angel has been negotiating with a lot of people’s guardian angels. I was not feeling well at the time that I did this. The album cover itself was taken by a photographer who picked me up and was taking me to a recording session in New Jersey. It was 102 degrees. His car started objecting to the heat. We went to a car garage and in that garage was a young man who actually had a record of mine. He was wonderful and trustworthy - not what we thing of mechanics. [laughing] The photographer was working with the mechanic and he brought out a seat for me to sit in. I was sitting in the garage, 102 degrees and I am not responding well to the heat. I am sitting below some automobile type equipment. The photographer finishes with the mechanic and he begins taking pictures. I looked at him and laughed and said ‘you must be kidding.’ So that is why we have tire type, automobile type things in the photo. Lea, let me tell you about the recording session. The musicians came in with absolutely no egos. All serving the music. It was the most tremendous experience. What has been happening since has been incredible. I got the letter from The National Endowment of Arts that was given to me by [President] Clinton; I have been nominated for the Grammy; and two categories for the W.C. Handy Awards.
You deserve every honor. Every one.
Do you have any advice for all of those women out there who are trying to not just be in ‘the business,’ but are trying to make a difference in their music?
Well, when you say to make a difference, that is an objective and somebody else decides who makes a difference. The only thing you have to work with is yourself. Now, you have to free your ownself up and believe in your ownself. And when you get into that, then be brave enough to put your ownself out there. Performers are the biggest gamblers going. We all had to adjust to something or somebody else. What is it within us that makes us think that we can get into this music and someone will like it?
Keep at what you are doing. You practice and be ready when that spotlight hits you. You don’t wait. I think what you’re doing Lea is wonderful. Let me read something to you my dear:
" Our worse fears are not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are worthy beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous. Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God…there is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." That is a from Nelson Mandela.
Thank you Odetta. I think we all needed to hear that. Thank you for letting your light shine.
©2000 Lea A. Gilmore and P.W. Fenton, All Rights Reserved.