Nominated for a Grammy in 2000 for her powerful blues CD, the legendary Odetta has returned to the studio to create Lookin¹ For A Home (Thanks To Leadbelly), a tribute to the great Leadbelly. This new release was anticipated anxiously by lovers of folk, blues and American roots music and the loyal following that Odetta has amassed over her more than fifty-year career. Special guests Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Henry Butler & Kim Wilson (The Fabulous Thunderbirds) come together with guitarist Jimmy Vivino and bassist Mike Merrit (Conan O'Brien) to give Odetta the full band sound that made her last album a sensation.
Odetta is one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. So many artists are indebted to her pioneering ways. Before Odetta, no solo woman performer (let alone an African American woman!) had sung blues, folk, work and protest songs. So much can be said about this incredible artist: she took part in the march on Selma; she sang for the masses at the 1963 March on Washington; she played for President Kennedy and his cabinet on the nationally televised Civil Rights program "Dinner with the President"; she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 1999; her first studio album (1958) inspired Bob Dylan to trade in his electric guitar and amp for a flat top Gibson acoustic guitar; she's acted in films and theater; her last album, called "Blues Everywhere I Go" (her 27th, and first in 14 years) was nominated for a Grammy in 2000.
Odetta is now 71 years old, and her voice is as strong and impressive as ever. The new album is comprised of songs either written or made famous by Leadbelly. It's been a long time coming, as Odetta, often called the "female Leadbelly," has been performing and recording his songs for years.
Lookin' For A Home was released on August 28, 2001.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930, and raised and schooled in Los Angeles since the age of six, Odetta began serious studies of classical music and voice at the age of thirteen, and as a teenager she appeared at the Turnabout Theatre in Hollywood. She dreamed of being a classical singer, however she was aware that even the great Marian Anderson couldn't break through the segregationist barriers of the major opera companies. So, at eighteen, Odetta joined the chorus of the road company tour of "Finian's Rainbow," and while in San Francisco, became exposed to folk music, learned to play the guitar, and soon began appearing at that cities popular folk clubs. Word quickly spread like wildfire across teh country, of this powerful black woman singing Negro folk songs, wcho could shake the rafters with her voice, touch your soul with her words and move you with he rdramatic presence. And she began to tour beyond the West Coast, to record and to gain support from influential artists. Upon her arrival in Chicago for the first time, as her taxi pulled up at the Gate of Horn, Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy were waiting outside the club to show her their big-brotherly support while she was in Chicago..... "welcoming their little sister to the big city," she would fondly recall. And upon arriving in New York the first time, for her engagement at the Tin Angel, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte repeatedly came to her shows, and actively brought influential people with them who were instrumental in assisting and furthering her career. She was soon breaking ground for a black female artist in America.
Odetta explored expanding fields of song, and showed a great depth of feeling whether she sang Negro work songs, the blues, jazz, spirituals, white Appalachian songs or English folk songs--always masterfully accompanied by her own unique guitar style. Her exploration left her with a deep passion for American folk music--determining that it is an "unique music form, because it is derived from a combination of different peoples. It came from almost every continent and country-from all those who immigrated to America, because everyone came here from somewhere else with his own music... American folk music became a unique blend of all people's music." Much of her research and her eventual repertoire came from The Archives of Folk Music at The Library of Congress-an institution which will remain dear to her for the remainder of her career. . . . "I'm an interpreter of folk music which encompasses more than folk songs handed down from the generations. It includes work songs, game songs, children's songs, gospel and blues... songs from people who had to entertain themselves outside of their daily work and songs for people and their emotional needs," she has say.
And in the 1950’s, she recorded ground-breaking albums on Riverside, Tradition, Fantasy and Vanguard Records, brought the houses down at the Newport Festival and at her triumphant Carnegie Hall concerts, appeared on national TV Specials, toured the world's greatest stages, and she became the first major influence on the future careers of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Dylan was quoted, "I learned all the songs on that record, it was her first, and the songs were "Mule Skinner," "Jack of Diamonds," "Water Boy," "Buked and Scorned."
The 1960s witnessed Odetta as a major voice in America's Civil Rights Movement. She marched with Dr. King in Selma, sang for the masses at the 1963 March on Washington, and performed for President John F. Kennedy and his cabinet on the nationally televised Special Civil Rights Program, "Dinner With The President."
Throughout the 1970s & 80s, Odetta continued to perform the world over and receive innumerable accolades. The 70's began Odetta's long association of performing with some of the world's celebrated symphony orchestras and ballet companies. In 1976, long time fan Sarah Caldwell cast her as the Muse of Liberty for John La Montaine's "Be Glad Then America," an opera commissioned for the U.S. Bicentennial. During the 1980's, she toured Africa, Australia, Asia, and The Soviet Union, as well as starring in the stage musical "Bessie Smith," and creating the role of Cobalt Blue in Toni Morrison's musical "New Orleans." The early 1990's saw Odetta perform in many television and radio specials - everyone for The Boston Pops to The Boys Choir of Harlem. One notable television appearance was for "CBS-TV's Sunday Morning" show, where TV correspondent and jazz legend Billy Taylor traveled with Odetta on her first trip back to Birmingham, Alabama in fifty years.
During 1998-99, as a major performance highlight in her long career, she co-starred with Jewel, Judy Collins, Paula Cole, Janice Ian and Phoebe Snow, at Madison Square Garden's "Women In Music 1960 - 1999," while Rolling Stone Magazine reviewed her set, reporting, "Odetta, arguably the only true legend in the house, was a stunner. It was almost unfair that she opened because it set a towering standard for the others to reach. The high point of her set was Mama and Papa Yancey's 'Ain't It Hard Lord.' Odetta rolled up her sleeves and, with one hand on her hip (accompanied by her pianist), got down to business. After fifty years of performing, Odetta remains a glorious and spiritual force."
Although Odetta's emphasis is on the positive side of life, she is cautious to trust organizations and their leaders. "Years ago I got impatient with the ego things that people go through in organizations, no matter how worthy their cause is." Accordingly, Odetta's passionate commitment to life and humanity has evolved into "Being Useful," and it is embodied in the performance of folk music, much of which originated in times when it was supportive of social improvements. In keeping with her need to "Be Useful," she decided that her contribution to causes would be to "use myself; in terms of benefit concerts for people who are brave enough to be on the firing line. I will more likely work for a group that is still grass roots' and has no funding from the government or other outside sources." She has performed hundreds of benefit concerts for the protection of the civil rights of all peoples--for the poor, the women, and children, and for those oppressed only because of their race, sex, sexual identification, religion or age... She sings, speaks out and donates her time and efforts for those not being educated and not receiving adequate medical care, for the imprisoned and for those persecuted by totalitarian governments... .and for the prevention of all wars, nuclear proliferation, and world hunger. "I perform wherever and whenever I'm needed. I do what I believe in."
Fittingly, one day after the release of her new CD, "Blues Everywhere I Go," and appropriately coinciding with her 50th Anniversary Celebration, the President and Mrs. Clinton, honored a prestigious group of Americans with The National Medal of The Arts and Humanities, in ceremonies held at Washington's Constitution Hall on September 29th. The nineteen honorees included Odetta, Steven Spielberg, August Wilson, Maria Tallchief; Norman Lear, Aretha Franklin, Garrison Keeler and Rosetta LeNoire. This ceremony was especially moving for Odetta, since her dear friend and childhood singing influence, Marian Anderson, was prevented from performing on that same stage just sixty years earlier because of the color of her skin. Upon meeting Odetta, the President told her, "I've loved your music since I was a boy, I had so many of your albums-you were a major inspiration to me." And that evening, after the ceremonies, Odetta and her fellow honorees were feted at The White House, where she dined at the President's table and then danced into the wee hours to the music performed by the Presidential Orchestra.
As Odetta approaches the sixth decade of her extraordinary career, she is more excited than ever about her career, her music and her role in life. She has continued to be a major influence on young artists, from Carly Simon and Joan Armitrading, to Sweet Honey in The Rock and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, to Nanci Griffith, Tracy Chapman, Casandra Wilson and Jewel. And she has been befriended by, rubbed shoulders with, and now becomes one of the few remaining bearers of the torches carried by some of our greatest artists and social activists of the past, such as: Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, President John F. Kennedy, Josh White, Yves Montand, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Witherspoon, Count Basie, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Elizabeth Cotton, Alberta Hunter, Big Bill Broonzy and Langston Hughes. She is proud to carry the torch as an 'Artist-Activist' into the new millennium.
Odetta's life has been a shining example for all minorities and young women throughout the world who have had a dream, yet faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in trying to overcome society's prejudices and injustices. Born poor, and disenfranchised by her government in America's racially segregated society, Odetta was prevented from pursuing her original dream of being a classical singer in the 1940s, only because of the color of her skin. Yet she persevered, delved deep into the historical black music of her cultural past with a passion, ventured paths untread by women of color, expanded her exploration to folk music of all cultures, and spread her unique musical message and performance to every continent on earth. And she would go on and inspire millions of civil rights advocates around the world, including a young, white southern teenager named Bill Clinton.... perform her 'magic' before Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy...and then, on the 50th Anniversary of her professional career, she is honored at The White House with her nation's highest presidential award, presented by that same southern boy, now the President of the United States.