For the past 60 years, the Alabama-born folk singer and activist has traveled the world. Classically trained, Odetta wanted to sing opera like Marian Anderson, but the racism of the ’50s turned her to folk music. Odetta was there at the era’s creation, serenading the faithful at the 1963 March on Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her the queen of American folk music, securing her iconic status. Whether playing benefit concerts for hundreds or strumming her guitar for a handful of protestors, the troubadour spreads light through songs of hope and defiance.
In the 1988 film Hairspray, even a stoned beatnik played by Pia Zadora voices her Odetta envy. And what good white ’60s liberal didn’t? For mainstream households, this beautiful, fiercely eloquent woman represented black America. Her name became synonymous with the civil rights movement.
Now in her 77th year, Odetta radiates the energy of an earth mother: regal, profound, and occasionally imperious. Between recording and touring, she pauses to accept countless honors. Just healing from a broken hip, Odetta will play SUNY New Paltz on June 2.
Jay Blotcher: Tomorrow night [April 5], you’ll take part in a concert to honor Bruce Springsteen at Carnegie Hall, sharing the stage with Jewel, Babyface, Steve Earle, Badly Drawn Boy, and The North Mississippi Allstars.
Odetta: I think everybody will be singing a song of his. But it’s for amassing monies to get instruments for children in the schools. [Funds collected went to the organization Music for Youth.]
JB: How did you get involved?
Odetta: I was just asked. And I like the idea. It’s a scary time, and whatever we as civilians can do, at least for some few children, and get that done until the government can catch up with what the needs of the people are, then I'm right there, ready to serve.
JB: Many people look to you for hope, encouragement, and strength. What happens when Odetta has a momentary crisis of faith? Who do you turn to?
Odetta: My music. My music is really like my university. That’s what I’ve been learning through and from. I don't know how to translate that. And then there are those times where, if we can get our minds together, we don’t [necessarily] solve anything but we help soothe ourselves. And we come away saying, “Well, I wasn't crazy after all. Each of us as individuals has our own way of dealing with getting ourselves balanced or keeping our balance.
JB: When you have some rare quiet time, what music do you reach for?
Odetta: I never remember to put on a CD or a tape. I have friends who, as soon as they walk in the door, they put on the music. It never occurs to me. Now, when I’m on the road, I carry a radio. And it seems that the kind of music that I can stand and is saying something to me across the country is country and western music. That's where I hear words that make sense. It's not just “Ooh, ahh, I’m having an orgasm.” [Laughs.] But, generally speaking, I don't know what I'd do without music.
JB: Bob Dylan heard your music in 1956 and was inspired to play folk music. You returned the compliment in 1965 with an album of Dylan covers. I read that there are plans for a second volume.
Odetta: I’m not too sure if I’m going to do a second one. I’m really in flux right now as to what next to do. I’m thinking it over. There are other things that might thrill me: children’s play songs and game songs of the South is one.
JB: So often, the idealism of youth gives way to the disillusionment of older age. Have you seen this happen in your own heart?
Odetta: I don’t think so. No. I’d lovingly say that I am a retard. As kids, we constantly talk about “that’s not fair.” We’re always looking for “fair.” Well, a lot of people, when you grow up after awhile, you see that “fair” does not exist. You stop looking for “fair.” Well, I’m still looking for “fair.” [Laughs.]
JB: What performance plans do you have for the coming months—or the coming years?
Odetta: Well, I want to get strong enough to be able to do a full concert again. And also to travel. I suppose that I will never retire. I’m supposing that at the end of my life, I might only have three notes that I can croak. But I’ll be on somebody’s stage, trying to croak ’em.
Unison Arts presents Odetta on June 2 at 8pm at the McKenna Theater, SUNY New Paltz campus. (845) 255-1559; www.unisonarts.org.