Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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There’s a kind of magic that can only be shared in song, and on stage. Odetta exudes it. Her powerful bass voice — which The New York Times once hailed as “the most glorious in folk music” — resounds with humanness, caressing the listener like a warm wind. If I’ve ever heard “soul” music, hers is. (The first time I saw Odetta perform, on an outdoor stage in Central Park, she took me quite by surprise. I had just commented to a friend about the impressive quality of the sound system, when I looked again, and noticed that she wasn’t using it.) At 53, she’s the “grand old lady” of folk music, a large black woman with a face that seems both wise and deeply serious, until it erupts in her booming, mischievous laughter. For more than thirty years she’s been singing her songs about “people stuff” — prison songs and slave songs, work songs, play songs, freedom-fighting songs — all woven together with a thread of hope. “Folk music insists upon life,” she says. “In folk, someone can be so down because of their work situation, or because they’re in prison and working from sunup to sundown. But one way or another, they’re going to make it.”
Born Odetta Felious in Birmingham, Alabama, she moved to Los Angeles at age six, where she rather inadvertently began her training in classical singing. “I was taking piano lessons,” she remembers, “and as my friend and I were waiting for the teacher to come over, we were seeing how high we could sing. The teacher walked in and heard us. She tried out my voice, and on the spot became a voice teacher.” Years later, while performing in a summer stock production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow” in San Francisco, friends introduced her to that city’s growing folk music, coffee house scene. She was infatuated, and soon bought herself a guitar and started performing at a local club called The Tin Angel. That’s where she became simply “Odetta.” In folk music she became a kind of musical preacher of caring and deep feeling. “I still adore the classical music,” she said, “but I need to have more specific things addressed. My main story is what comes from folks . . . how our forebears helped themselves get through to where we are.”
With the help of mentors Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, she quickly became a regular on the folk circuit, appearing in coffee houses, at the Newport Folk Festival, and in her own television special in 1959. The then novel hairstyle she sported became known as an “Odetta” (later the “Afro”). Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin both claimed her as an important influence on them, and yet, despite critical acclaim, she never found much commercial success. For this, she feels racism has been mainly to blame. There was a time when she felt consumed with righteous anger, both racial and personal. “I hated me and everybody else,” she says. “Of course, I didn’t have the guts to say it or admit it to myself. Folk music helped me work it out. It helped me learn about history, and all of a sudden, I was there and I saw the strength of what I came out of, and I think that was the original building block for discarding my anger.” More recently, Odetta has begun teaching courses in singing and what she describes as “consciousness raising.” She is soon to return to acting, in the lead role of a Broadway show called “New Orleans.”
Although I’d seen her perform a number of times, when we met in her hotel lobby the morning after her recent Chapel Hill concert, I almost didn’t recognize her. Missing was the distinct glow of her stage persona, and subtler were the radiant smile and matriarchal charm. I saw that I had tagged her with my own idealized image. How easy to forget — people are people. So, while her personal strength and sincerity were still readily apparent, the flavor and emotional dynamics of our conversation were quite different from what I’d expected. She explained part of this difference in the interview: “I do find that, as I’m singing, I’m on another level. I’ve received inspiration from it. As the music starts I become a receiver. I receive from the center of center.”
Music is “an extension of the being,” she says. “It helps us continue.”
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: A friend of mine, who has seen you perform several times, called me this morning, concerned. He wondered if something was bothering you last night, keeping you from really letting loose.
ODETTA: I don’t know what he means, but there was nothing bothering me. I enjoyed last night immensely.
SUN: Good. You’ve said that to you music is healing. In what way?
ODETTA: People have told me that after a concert they felt better. And I have experienced it myself, gone onto the stage sick as a dog. Once, before I started singing, I said, “Let’s see if the music will heal me,” because I was feeling rotten. And it wasn’t until I’d gotten back to the hotel room later that night that I remembered I hadn’t been feeling well at the beginning of the evening. It’s been discovered that music can help sick, terminally ill, and mentally ill people. The vibratory levels of music help the body or help the mind to heal the body.
SUN: I had that experience listening to you sing last night. I closed my eyes at one point and felt a calmness and lightness come over me. You mentioned last night that a particular song had “come through you,” and that was a healing process also.
ODETTA: I’m shy about writing, about exposing myself, but songs have come through me. Once, I was in Israel and had a hard night — an argument that was so unimportant I don’t even remember what it was about — and I decided I’d go to sleep. In those days that was the way I handled my problems. There’s a Chinese proverb that says if you have a big problem, and you need to solve it, go to sleep. The problem won’t disappear, but you’ll wake up in another position. (Chuckles.) Well, I got back to the hotel, and I couldn’t go to sleep. So I took pencil and paper in hand and out came a song. The kind of writing I admire involves yourself right out there, like Joni Mitchell. Her songs are about what she did or didn’t do or what she’s feeling. It’s almost like an exorcism. But I haven’t gotten there yet.
SUN: Let’s talk about what singing the blues is all about. How is it that you take the heartache and you put it in a song and somehow it lifts you up?
ODETTA: That’s exactly it. You answered your own question. It’s also an insistence on living. You’re in a situation, so you make something out of it. It’s refusing to lie down and die.
SUN: When the blues really have you, with their foot on your neck. . . .
ODETTA: You know, I sing very few blues. Last night, I did sing “Troubled,” but that was the only hint of the blues I did in my program. Why did you ask me about the blues?
SUN: Well, I think of you partly as a blues singer.
ODETTA: Do you want me to tell you why? We need to work on this. I’m a big black woman, therefore I must either sing gospel or blues. That’s one of the stereotypes that we’ve got to get away from. Unless you hear somebody singing gospel or the blues, don’t assume they’re singing gospel or blues.
SUN: The association might be from the last time I saw you singing with bluesmen Sonny Terry and Browny McGhee.
ODETTA: You know, there are so many things that are worked on us, and we’ve never even thought about them. It’s just a part of the language. But this is a glorious time in that it is possible to figure it out, if you want to know why you do or say certain things. At one point, I would have thought, “He didn’t even listen to me.” But I know that’s not so. Do you know what I mean? That another decal just put on us. We need to watch the words we use.
As to your friend who was concerned about last night, I wonder, is it possible that he had in mind my prison songs and ones that are louder or more energetic? But that’s almost like sitting there not listening to what is going on. I refuse to be held in or down by anything or anybody. I am different one day to the next, as all of us are. And I have never given the same performance twice. I don’t know how long ago he saw me.
SUN: Two years ago.
ODETTA: Well, I am not the same. And he’s thinking about two years ago and can’t hear me now. A lot has happened to me in those two years but he wants to keep me back there maybe. Maybe not. I’m not going to let the hairs on my back stand up, because there’s nothing invalid about two years ago and there’s nothing invalid about last night.
SUN: What have the last couple of years been like for you?
ODETTA: There are some focal points, though they won’t necessarily get at the heart of what has happened. One was that I was asked to teach at Evergreen State College in Washington. I had a class of about twenty-five — as best as I can describe it, it was less a music than a consciousness raising class. We did the same kind of thing you and I just did. We got to a trust among ourselves and we were able to talk about things that we couldn’t talk about with our parents, our lovers, our husbands, wives, or friends. And the only thing I really needed to bring to that class was a box of Kleenex. Because there were times when we would just spill over, cry. That class did things to the campus. Friends of my students were wondering what was going on. They were seeing changes. That went a long way toward changing me. I couldn’t teach without learning, especially in this kind of class. There was one time when I had a problem with them, and I finally decided I was going to say it. It was a very unfamiliar area to me, and I started spilling over. And a few of them came and just stood around me for a minute, until I could get myself back together and finish. Another time, we helped one young lady whose grandfather was dying. We talked about death. I get goosebumps thinking about it. We as human beings get so busy with our assignments and what we think we’ve got to do that we just run right past this glorious thing that we are, and can be.
SUN: When you find yourself running past it, how do you get yourself back in touch with your inner spirit?
ODETTA: Music does that for me.
SUN: Sometimes your songs have a very prayerful quality about them.
ODETTA: I see it as something sacred, yes. Paul Winter said it well in one of your interviews [Issue 87] — how words like “religious” can get you into trouble, because we have decals that we put on that, too. I do find that, as I’m singing, I’m on another level. I’ve received inspiration from it. As the music starts, I become a receiver. I receive from the center of center. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the words to put to what comes through.
SUN: I commented to a friend last night what a radiant smile you had on stage. And he said, “You know, when she’s singing, you don’t see her as black or white or man or woman, just a being.”
ODETTA: Isn’t that interesting? In my private life now, I wear something where some part of my legs will show, but until recently, getting dressed and looking in the mirror, I hadn’t seen my legs years. In performing, it has to be long — either pants or skirt, dress, whatever. In that, I am neuter. I remember years ago I went to Atlanta. I was asked to sing at a college and it was late morning, so I wore a daytime dress. I was standing up there, trying to sing but I was distracted. I couldn’t get myself right. Isn’t that the weirdest thing? The whole of me has to be clothed. As the whole of me is clothed, I can better become the kid or the worker or the this or the that. I’m just neuter.
SUN: You seem to have a very well-developed child in you.
ODETTA: I’m a better kid now. I’m a better kid than I was when I was a kid. And maybe all of us potentially are. When growing up, there’s so much information we need to learn. We don’t know if this is right or that is right; there are all these do’s and don’ts. I was too ponderous, serious, frightened. Now, at fifty-three, I’m an incredible kid.
SUN: You’ve said that at one time you felt a great deal of rage, and one thing that helped you through that was learning history through folk music itself.
ODETTA: When I started singing folk music, the bulk of the repertoire was work songs. I got my hate and frustration out with the work songs, and it was good to get it out — but it came to me at one point that I would have to stop becoming the prisoner in the work songs. I would have to act it, not become it, because becoming the prisoner was like using my whole body to grab at my throat. And anything or anybody that affects my throat has to get out of my life. So I made that choice. And a very interesting thing happened. I missed the kinds of responses I had gotten when I was singing out of sheer unadulterated hate. Because there were times when I would finish “John Henry” or “Waterboy” and people would stand and scream and stomp and applaud. It was as if they were shaking off the feelings I had put out there. They had to get rid of it, too.
One of the first songs that got up and walked out my door was “John Henry.” Someone requested it, and I started singing it and I remembered back to when it was sung out of hate, and the energy it had then. I couldn’t settle for less. I wasn’t able to do that song anymore. I couldn’t settle for less than what it had been.
At one point, I had a lot of love songs, and then I didn’t sing any love songs. It wasn’t a conscious decision. A friend I’ve known for years asked me, “Why aren’t you singing those pretty love songs?” I said, “Oh . . . I guess I haven’t been.” I started thinking about that, and realized I’d become confused by men’s and women’s confusion in this country around love. I’m not sure I answered your question.
SUN: I was asking about how learning history helped you through your anger.
ODETTA: When I was growing up, Hollywood was in its heyday. Films are quite an educational part of a kid’s awareness of history, and of one’s worth. I didn’t see blacks in movies except in denigrating, insulting, stereotypical roles. And then, in grammar school, at an age when a kid believes that if it’s in a book it must be true, one history book told me that the slaves were happy and singing all the time. We had talked about slavery and feudalism and I was against all that. And then to hear that my people were happy and singing all the time in slavery! I was ashamed of that. Therefore, I was ashamed of myself. Within folk music — people collecting the songs and the history around them — I found more of the history of my folks, and their strength. That started making me feel much better about me.
SUN: You bring a lot of that feeling of our country’s folk history through your music and the songs you choose.
ODETTA: I like to because, in this country, we’re all in the same boat. We have been split up and parted for so long. Whatever I can do within my concert to help lessen the schism would be very good.
SUN: Who are your heroes?
ODETTA: Heroes for me? Marian Anderson — a black woman with a beautiful contralto voice — and Paul Robeson, a magnificently voiced black man and scholar. I learned from Paul Robeson that it was not only possible but necessary to help your brother and sister.
SUN: What are the real issues behind racism? What keeps people apart? What can we do?
ODETTA: Maybe I should go back to my perceptions of it. In the South there were signs for “colored” and “white.” However, within the South, there was a great common ground; it was an agrarian culture and everybody had to depend on Mother Nature. A more humanistic viewpoint was possible, at times. Up North, we have factories, and factory owners playing one person against another. Let’s say we have a town of orange people and two families of purple people that live there. No problem. Now maybe the purple people are not invited over to the orange people’s houses, but they’re not being harassed. Then, for some reason, there’s an influx into the orange town of purple people; they’re looking for jobs. They go to the factory, apply, and they’re told the job pays $1.50 an hour. And the purple people are very happy to have a job at $1.50 an hour. The orange people resent the purple people; they want to be paid $3.00 an hour. And rather than turn on the bosses or the union, they turn against the purple people. I think this is one of the basic parts of racism. We have the phrase, “At least I’m free, white, and over twenty-one.” And that comes from people thinking, “I may not have a pot to piss in but at least this society isn’t stomping on me, as it does on the purple people.” People who are insecure need to find somebody to look down on, standing on top of their bodies in order to feel tall.
SUN: That’s true of the way that men can look at women also. I thought about this recently, when I was spending time with a colored woman and . . .
ODETTA: Why did you call her a colored woman?
SUN: I don’t know, it just came out. Maybe all that talk about purple and orange people. . . .
ODETTA: When you said that, I wondered if she were Indian or what. That’s really all right. It’s just such an old-fashioned phrase if you’re referring to a Negro or a black.
SUN: When I used the word “black” with her, she would deny that she was black. She’d say she was chocolate brown, or something.
ODETTA: Well, in that particular area, it’s justified. Probably because she wants to be called “colored.” All right, I see where that comes from.
SUN: Anyway, she would tell me how some of her friends would see us together and scold her, saying “Don’t see him. That’s terrible. Can’t you find one of your own people?” She stood up to them righteously, but that really brought the point home for me.
ODETTA: That thing of “don’t see him,” I mean really. The attributes of the individual should be what’s looked at.
SUN: How deeply do you feel that racism has affected your life and career, and how have you dealt with it?
ODETTA: Let me tell you this story. Harry Belafonte was standing in for Johnny Carson on “The Johnny Carson Show” and he invited many of the popular black entertainers and artists. One reviewer thought that he was being racist. Now, these were people who had not been seen on Johnny Carson’s show when Johnny Carson was doing it, but Johnny Carson was never accused of being racist. We as blacks can be overlooked, even now, within the industry. I do know if I were white or orange with whatever it is that I have going for me, I would be right out there on the top of the heap — although I might not have the same things going for me if I were white or orange. I know that, and I’ve lived with that all through my life. At one point, it infuriated me that whatever talent I had was overlooked.
There was one time in Nashville, when Joan Baez was there recording. She came over to see me at the club where I was working, and after the performance we were talking. I said, “You know, it’s about time that I told you some of the things that I feel. I would not want to cut down on the popularity that you have, but there are times when I get insane with fury when I see how this system is working on us.” And she said, “I know exactly what you mean.” I had to do that because my resentment toward the system was getting ready to show itself in my relationship with her, and she had nothing to do with it.
SUN: Despite the system, do you consider yourself a success?
ODETTA: Yes, but I’ve always been a success. I’ve always had audiences to sing for. Now, I have to sing for more and more people, but I never felt unsuccessful.
SUN: What advice do you have for people trying to develop their singing ability?
ODETTA: I give singing lessons but my feeling is that when we’re born, the first thing we do is take a breath. Nobody needs to teach us how to breathe. That’s a natural thing. The second thing we do is make a sound. You see little kids running around all day long screaming and hollering. They never come up with sore throats. So really, in voice lessons, all I do is remind the person of what it is that is happening. And to stay away from the throat.
SUN: The voice comes from deeper down?
ODETTA: The diaphragm is like the bellows. The face is like the sounding board. And you leave the strings or the vocal chords alone. When I was giving voice lessons at my home in New York, a great part of the voice lesson had to do with philosophies — theirs and mine. Because what is it you’re going to project? You can play the notes on a piano, but as we are singing and interpreting a song, it’s coming out of our experience. I encourage them to gamble on what it is they feel, and just put it out there. A response, positive or negative, will always come after you’ve done what you’ve got to do.
SUN: Is there a story behind the crystal on your forehead?
ODETTA: For some reason, years ago, I started wearing a band around there, but that seemed to smother me. One day, there was a little something that I’d broken off of something else. I put a wire in it and twisted it and put it in the middle of my forehead. Kids will ask me what it is and I’ll say, “That’s my third eye.” They’ll say, “Can you really see through it?” Or they’ll say, “How do you put that in?” I tell them, “Well, I went and got an operation, and I had a hole put in my head.” “You did!” And I say, “Don’t believe that!” Crystals are healing things. They bring in energies. We live in an incredible time when the power of crystals and other more wholistic views are possible to come by. I think we are even getting close to the time when a man and a woman can really sit down and talk to each other and get past the decals, really be able to work together.
SUN: Close to the time? Not quite yet?
ODETTA: There are individuals who are doing it now. And I think that it will happen more and more. And the more it happens, the more encouraging it will be. We have all inherited stuff that’s not necessarily our own. Then we find ourselves defending it. [Laughs.] And we’re in a time when men aren’t as threatened, and when we as women don’t have to threaten. We understand that this is, after all, the world we grew up in and we can change it.
Howard Jay Rubin