Civil rights beacon Odetta dead at 77

Wed Dec 3, 2008 8:29am EST
 
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Odetta, the deep-voiced folk singer whose ballads and songs became for many a soundtrack to the American civil rights movement, has died at age 77, her manager said on Wednesday.

Douglas Yeager said Odetta passed away late Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, after a decade-long fight with chronic heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis in her lungs.

"May Odetta's luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages," Yeager said in a statement. "Her voice will never die."

Odetta Holmes, born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 31, 1930, told the Times in a 2007 interview the music of the Great Depression, particularly the prison songs and work songs from the fields of the deep South, helped shape her musical life.

While she recorded several albums and sang at New York's Carnegie Hall among other prominent venues, Odetta is perhaps best remembered by most Americans for her brief performance at the August 1963 march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement at which she sang the song "O Freedom."

The Times said Rosa Parks, the woman who launched the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, was once asked which songs meant the most to her. "All the songs Odetta sings," was Parks' reply.

Odetta, who moved from Alabama to Los Angeles with her mother in 1937, earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. But she told the Times her training in classical music and musical theater "was a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life."

She said she found her true voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music from the African-American and Anglo-American traditions.

Odetta began singing professionally in a West Coast production of the musical "Finian's Rainbow," but said she found a stronger calling in the coffeeshops and nightclubs of San Francisco.   Continued...

 
<p>Odetta sings "Jim Crow Blues" at New York's Radio City Music Hall in a 2003 photo. Odetta, the deep-voiced folk singer whose ballads and songs became for many a soundtrack to the American civil rights movement, has died at age 77, her manager said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jeff Christensen</p>