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Folk as the Sound of Self-Liberation: The Career and Performance Identity of Odetta

This paper examines the performance career of Odetta, an African-American folk singer, guitarist and political personality active from the early 1950s through her death in 2008. Odetta’s legacy persists in American society through her association with the cultural politics of the civil rights movement, although she led an acclaimed singing and acting career which included but extended beyond her formal involvement in civil rights. Odetta helped to advance civil rights causes on a political and legal level, particularly through holding benefit concerts which raised funds for localized civil rights initiatives. But beyond the realm of politics and law, she located liberation for African-Americans in the early postwar era, then living under the persistent fact of Jim Crow segregation, in the cultural and emotional arena of individual identity production. Odetta devoted her career to exposing racist cultural norms and the way that these norms shaped black subjectivity, beginning with her own identity and lived experience as a black woman performer. To do so, Odetta relied on the idiom of “folk” as she utilized her own musical repertoire, largely drawn from the Mississippi Delta region of the American South, to encourage empathetic listening among her audiences as her music reinvented the experiences of the communities from whom these songs originated. Though an imperfect medium, the folk genre enabled Odetta to transmit, through sound, the memory of past African-American communities, and in so doing, she exposed and dismantled the racist structures she navigated in her present-day context.1

The analysis adopted in this paper refracts a narrative of Odetta’s career development through an interpretive prism of race, class, gender and nation as it critically investigates how Odetta used a rare subject position as a successful, black woman artist to shed light on social issues while also continuously seeking to put forth quality work as an entertainer. It examines her biography to consider how she negotiated her identity, and its public reception, during a period of transformation in American race relations. The paper also examines the relationship between performance and the making of Odetta’s racialized subjectivity, suggesting that her performance image was not divorced from her personality but was rather intimately connected to it. The paper delineates Odetta’s life from the beginning of her career as an adolescent studying classical oratorio through her discovery of folk music among West and East coast urban undergrounds in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village. It later provides an overview of her work in the civil rights movement, cultural labor which not only included benefit concerts, but which involved a very public identification with African aesthetic forms, particularly through Odetta’s presentation of her body. Later in life, Odetta would serve as an American cultural ambassador to the Soviet Union, while performing in films and theater productions, work which demonstrated a turn toward a politics of respectability. Rather than narrate every event in Odetta’s professional life, it focuses on key snapshots, assembled chronologically, which elucidate the relationship between the artist’s performance presence with her racialized subjectivity. While many scholars and journalists claim that the American folk music revival declined in influence in the mid-1960s as the popularity of folk was replaced with rock and roll, Odetta’s career as a folk artist continued to thrive even while she more rigorously pursued acting in the 1970s. Nevertheless, placing the career of Odetta at the center of its analysis, the paper also unsettles, if tangentially, the accepted chronological boundaries of the American folk music revival.2


Identity Formation through Performance: Odetta’s Introduction to the African American Folk Song Tradition

On a December evening in 1959, Odetta Felious Gordon Holmes—widely known exclusively by her stage name, “Odetta”—appeared on an episode of a CBS program, Tonight with Belafonte.3 Already labeled “Queen of American Folk Music long before that title had come into vogue,” according to a music reviewer, Odetta appeared on stage with little but a long, plain dress and her guitar to accompany her.4 She stood in the center of a pool of bright light that contrasted sharply with a dark stage, forming an air of solemnity that the black-and-white medium of television broadcast made all the more pronounced. Her hair was thick and short, free of any attempts to flatten or straighten it. Later, a civil rights-inspired African ethnic beauty revival would popularize the “Odetta,” as the hairstyle was originally called, renaming it the “Afro.”5 But for now, the performer stood alone as the first household name to don such a daring do. With eyes tightly shut, Odetta belted out the lyrics to what television critic Chestyn Everette described as the “triumph of the evening”: her rendition of the African-American slave and prison labor song, “Water Boy.”6 “Water Boy!,” Odetta cried, which she followed with a dramatic pause and sharp guitar strum, “Water Boy! If you don’t come right here / Gonna tell pa on you / There ain’t no hammer that ring like mine, boy . . . There ain’t no hammer that ring like mine.”7

In 1959, although the “new folk revival,” as folklorists, musicologists, artists, and fans would come to call, it had barely begun, Odetta was already three years into a rapidly advancing career.8 Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930, Odetta moved at a young age to Los Angeles, California where she grew up.9 Odetta’s parents were Reuben Holmes and Flora Sanders, although her mother later remarried.10 When she did so, Odetta took the surname of her stepfather, Zadock Felious, who worked as a custodian.11 The family encountered financial hardships throughout Odetta’s youth, though in junior high school, a music teacher took note of her vocal talent, offering her private lessons to train as a classical vocalist.12 Her mother paid for these lessons to the extent that her income would allow.13 Originally aspiring to sing oratorios in her adolescence, Odetta encountered an entirely different musical form—folk music—hanging around the “fringes of bohemia” in her Los Angeles home at the age of nineteen.14 Folk music initially held little appeal to her; Odetta did not care for the only instrument that seemed to accompany folk artists—the acoustic guitar—and given her nascent development as a classical artist, she did not identify with the improvisation, transience, and down-and-out image which many folk singers projected.15 Nevertheless, a combination of events gradually attracted Odetta to folk. She met a cultural preservationist, Marion Kirby, who introduced her to a tradition of folk song collection initiated by scholars like father-and-son duo John and Alan Lomax, who saw in folk music an inherently diverse, ever-changing, and yet nearly forgotten component of the nation’s cultural heritage.16 Her growing knowledge of folk culture and scholarship in turn introduced to Odetta an alternative version of American history. In school, Odetta learned that battles and robber barons shaped the trajectory of American life, with other actors playing but a negligible role.17 The content of her curriculum and routine humiliations endured in a segregated public school setting combined to teach her that as a black woman, in her words, she “meant nothing.”18

Odetta’s perception of the folk tradition, in contrast, offered a window into the American black experience, one characterized by unjust conditions of forced labor and confinement from which a large and varied repertoire of labor songs and spirituals grew. These songs reflected not only tragedy, but as Odetta album liner notes suggest, “the richness and complexity of her own heritage.”19 Odetta also realized that as a classical performer she was expected to follow in the footsteps of artists who preceded her. She was to become the “next Marian Anderson,” for example, although the notion of such a career path irritated a fiercely independent streak.20 Odetta had no desire to mimic other artists, but faced significant challenges when seeking to forge her own artistic persona in the classical world. As a black woman artist, opportunities would be scarce and artistic experimentation looked upon with suspicion. In addition, another, more inward obstacle stood in the way of a classical career. As a young woman, Odetta has described herself as grappling with intense emotions of “frustration and fury” and of “anger . . . venom,” and “hatred” toward “everyone else and everything else,” but most importantly, perhaps, at herself.21

Growing up in amid racial and cultural formations in which her blackness and her womanhood defied norms for women seeking public careers in music, at the start of Odetta’s career she was exceedingly self-conscious about her appearance and racist attitudes she experienced as a performer. A “handsome” woman with a “full figure,” according to concert reviewers, she felt disadvantaged by a large frame which did not meet idealized norms of a petite, white body type in conventionally feminine women.22

She was at once terrified of and enraged at her audience, usually white concert goers, many of whom did not hesitate to demand encores with a presumptuousness that she perceived to operate racialized grounds.23 But when she sang songs from the African-American folk tradition, she says that she effectively became the slave, the prisoner, and the impoverished blues man.24 In her early career, she often dressed in long clothing that hid her discomfort with her body, clothing she felt made her gender neutral.25 Odetta became fixated on suppressing aspects of her identity, in this case her physical body, whose nonconformity with normative racial and gender standards shamed her. Ironically, however, Odetta’s initial attempts to make herself virtually invisible on stage became the impetus from which her most substantial cultural and political contributions grew. Intent on mimicking the sounds, facial expressions and mannerisms of the personalities her songs spoke about, she performatively connected her audiences with people whose songs and sounds they knew little of given an expanse of history, geography and memory which divided them. Later, Odetta claimed that she found herself through this performative immersion into African-American folk songs. It was in this way that folk music constituted her own personal “freedom,” and Odetta sought to liberate others in the same way that she had achieved an inner freedom—through contact with the stories and sounds communicated through folk songs.26

Nearly three decades following the launch of her career in folk song, in 1982 Odetta was teaching a music course as an artist-in-residence at Evergreen State College in Washington.27 When an interviewer asked about the content of her course, Odetta replied that her students “don’t have a lot of reading or assignments or papers to do. What we’re doing is confronting the biggest dragon in our world, ourselves. We’re battling that feeling our world, our social system has taught us—that if we really display or show ourselves, nobody would like us.”28 What may at first seem like a saccharine reply in fact constitutes the defining journey of Odetta’s life as a folklorist, artist and activist. Hers is a story of forging an individual identity as an empowered black woman performer at a time when she felt immense pressure to fade into invisibility. Self-consciousness and rage marked the beginning of Odetta’s career, a “beast” inside which she consoled through a full-throated entry into an emerging folk music revival.29

For Odetta, folk music was free of the “rigid tempos and rests” which defined classical music forms, and Odetta believed it to encompass one of the few musical traditions available which did not seek to fit artists into a ready-made white template.30 In this case, Odetta’s experience offered a rather optimistic view of folk music’s potential; the early development of the genre did in fact lend itself to significant cultural appropriation on the part of wealthy, educated white elites, including among the well-known Lomax family of folk song preservationists.31

But as Odetta herself studied folk music, she encountered a heterogeneous array of songs which she felt were as varied as the fabric of American society, though she generally selected her songs from Southern black writers whose compositions she first listened to at the Lomax-founded American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.32 A defining feature of folk music, the transmission of songs from generation to generation, songs whose lyrics and chords can fluctuate as many times as they change hands, provide great latitude for individual interpretation.33 Folk music gave Odetta room to initially mimic a pre-existing style of black lyrics and rhythms when she felt insecure in her own identity. Odetta believes, however, that folk music ultimately supplied her with an identity rooted in what became her association with a long history of black struggle against structures of oppression. When she listened to the Lomaxes’ recordings, for example, a vast number of which included prison chain gang songs, she heard people who seemingly could not “get out from [under society’s] foot,” but who “insisted on [their] own individual life,” who “reaffirmed themselves” rather than falling into life’s “cracks.”34 Songs of oppression became songs of liberation as Odetta followed the example of these singers, insisting on her individuality despite the shame she earlier associated with it. Later, folk music’s capacity to expand and contract would give Odetta room to continue to grow as an artist, accommodating changes to her performance image and song selections.35

Self-discovery through folk music defined Odetta’s contribution to the American folk music revival as the artistic and activist enterprise that it was in the mid to late twentieth century. In many respects, Odetta’s art and her activism departed from what many other folksingers were pursuing. Odetta’s approach did not mirror the emphasis on popular English and Irish ballads which would characterize the work of many prominent woman folk singers at the start of their careers, including Joan Baez and Judy Collins.36 On the other hand, however, Odetta also declared herself neither a “speech-maker” nor a “picket-line marcher” during the social and cultural tumult of the rights revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s.37 With the exception of the 1963 March on Washington, she largely refrained from attending protests involving methods of direct action, from marching to volunteering jail time, to draw attention to civil rights causes. Instead, Odetta used her artistic production, including her performance of a large collection of vernacular, jazz and blues songs—all of which folklorists and marketers alike classified under the idiom of “folk”—to comprise the site of her activist work.38

For Odetta, cultural brokerage became a form of power. Through frequent concerts, particularly benefit shows which raised money for causes, together with television appearances, acting in stage and film productions, music teaching, and performing for fans in the United States and around the world, Odetta gave audiences an opportunity to experience and empathize with an American black cultural heritage. Over the course of a thirty-year career, Odetta evolved as a performer, at first “tight and withdrawn,” and later becoming “loose and garrulous.”39 In time, she dropped songs like “John Henry” and “Water Boy” from her repertoire, no longer feeling like she needed to rely on the experiences communicated in these particular songs, to say what she wished to express to her audiences. They told a story of overcoming subservience which Odetta could not relate to as well later on in her professional life.40

Indeed, Odetta, like other African-American woman entertainers, adhered to a certain politics of respectability, seeking to gain social esteem through her work rather than glorify marginality, as many young white folk artists were doing at this time. But her approach never became racially accomodationist, either. She wished always to preserve elements of a black heritage which were all their own, rather than ones which suggested to blacks that they should strive to become “black white men.”41 Odetta, “the phenomenon among singers” as she was later known, “impossible to imitate,” skillfully navigated the available structures of a reviving folk heritage and the show business industry to discover herself—endowing her own identity with a dignity that she was able to transmit through the folk tradition to those who encountered her.


A Blues Singing Beat: The Transgressive Artistic and Personal Development of Odetta

Odetta came of age amid the cultural hothouses of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1950s. Although she began her own career rigorously training to perform opera and oratorio, she soon abandoned the narrow confines of a classical path to explore other pursuits. She claims that she left the world of classical music because she caught a “psychological cold,” feeling allergic, in effect, to a musical genre from which she felt fundamentally alienated.42 She went on to join the glee club, where she became a member of the chorus in the musical Finian’s Rainbow, performed at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.43 Produced in 1947, Finian’s Rainbow merged political satire with comedic stunts that critiqued race relations in the sharecropping South. Its plot development followed a character from the faux Southern state of “Missitucky,” an openly racist U.S. senator who is transformed by a magical charm into a black man and receives a healthy dose of his own bigotry.44 Although the production’s political stance was misunderstood—theater going NAACP members, for example, did not approve of the blackface which marked the senator’s racial transition on stage—the writers’ aims were to expose the hypocrisy of racist attitudes which they associated with the rural South.45

Following her chorus role in Finian’s Rainbow, Odetta soon participated in another musical, Guys and Dolls, held at a San Francisco opera house.46 After the production, she would visit the local “joint” with fellow young theater mates, having moved away from her Los Angeles home to San Francisco for the first time.47 Homesick and in search of connection and comradery, after performances Odetta enjoyed spending time in clubs throughout San Francisco where young “pickers” as they were often called would “sit around and play the guitar.”48 It was during this phase of her life that Odetta learned to become a picker herself. Having befriended a young woman and former guitarist who had recently become a mother and lost her interest in the instrument, the woman passed on her guitar to Odetta while teaching her three basic chords—“C, G, and easy F,” as Odetta later explained.49

Considering herself “a musical snob” in her earlier adolescence, Odetta could not have imagined how greatly her new connection to guitar playing, along with the spaces of music and political commentary she would now frequent, would feel “like home.”50 For Odetta, the folk songs which were increasingly popular among her new companions spoke about her life and experience in a way that oratorio could not.51 She considered herself a latecomer to a population that she would later light-heartedly call “the last of the bohemians,” noting that bohemians would soon take on a variety of different names that all meant essentially the “same thing,” referring to a countercultural lifestyle adopted by them all.52 Despite Odetta’s humor and dismissiveness, she did in fact spend a great deal of time in a relatively well-hidden urban cultural underground. As a newcomer to the “folk scene,” Odetta was closely intertwined with Beat counterculturalists who reveled in flouting conventional racial and gendered norms in the mid-twentieth century. While post-World War II American society by and large saw the growth of an enlarged white middle class which espoused rigid expectations of men and women to adhere to heteronormative gender and reproductive roles, Beats fled from these expectations.53 According to historian Wini Breines, Beats consisted of primarily white men who turned to artistic and literary production as they unshackled themselves from male gender norms in particular, including breadwinning, working middle management positions in workplace bureaucracies, and adopting patriotic politics in the early Cold War era, including support for America’s role in the nuclear arms race.54

Poets, painters, and novelists, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Edward Hopper expressed their fundamental alienation from middle-class lifestyles while vividly describing scenes from urban environments relegated to society’s margins, including the inside of mental hospitals, subway stations, prisons, and black majority urban settings, particularly Harlem. According to Leonard Wallock, Ellison described the skyscrapers of Harlem as at once symbolizing the aspirations and oppressions of its residents.55 Preferring the grit, unpredictability, and opportunity for impulsive experiences they could have in working-class urban environs, Beat men, while transient, frequented cafes, bars, clubs, and apartment houses in cities around the country.56 But much like their middle class counterparts, they were no strangers to misogyny.57 Erik Mortenson has described how many Beat men relegated their female partners to the mundane work of domestic upkeep while they tried to capture the “lived moment,” or what Galatea, who criticizes Dean Moriarty for leaving his girlfriend Camille with a child in tow, calls his “damned kicks” in Kerouac’s On the Road.58 It was uncommon, therefore, for women to identify as Beats, and even less common for African-Americans to join in on this largely white world, one that tended to romanticize black masculinity while actually intermingling with very few black men.59

Nevertheless, as an aspiring folk singer, Odetta found herself becoming an unlikely fellow traveler in this countercultural world. In these eclectic cultural spaces, it was not uncommon for Beats, bohemians, poets, jazz singers, and folkies to fraternize, and while Odetta never considered herself a Beat, she did begin her adult life as a single young black woman who was pursuing a career of art and social commentary entirely on her own. Her education and brief foray into classical training gave her an air of bourgeois sophistication which never left her, but she saw in the relative openness of 1950s countercultural communities an opportunity to pursue a life which was most meaningful to her—one where she could return to her roots through performing the music of the nation’s black folk heritage. Odetta’s participation in Beat life began in San Francisco as she traveled through the Beat communities which settled in North Beach, a neighborhood situated between the bay area and the city’s financial district.60 Featuring a multiethnic community of first and second generation Irish, Chinese, Mexican, and Italian immigrants, residents of North Beach were largely members of the working class and tolerant of a cadre of artists and writers, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, who moved there for parts of the year.61 The neighborhood’s many Italian landlords considered writing to be a respectable form of employment, and Beat writers came for the city’s low rents and tolerant attitudes.

As Odetta continued to practice song playing on her guitar, which she now lovingly named her “baby,” she armed herself with a new collection of black work songs and spirituals and began performing at a well-known location for Beat writers, subversive comedians, and early career musicians: the Hungry i club.62 Odetta also spent significant time at San Francisco’s Vesuvio Café, which attracted so many members of the Beat literati that, a year before he wrote “Howl,” Ginsberg penned a poem entitled “In Vesuvio’s Waiting for Sheila,” an ode to a former girlfriend and his time at the café.63 In an interview, Odetta claimed that she admired the raw look of the Hungry i and Vesuvio, whose “sawdust on the floor” authenticated her role in an outsider’s world.64 Alongside of her time at clubs and cafés, Odetta also spent many hours in the home of a Joann Shanis and Paul Mapes, a husband and wife who hosted gatherings for amateur artists in their apartment whose exposed ceiling beams Odetta interpreted as at once ramshackle and urbane, and who were never short on bottles of Gala wine served to guests.65 At these gatherings, Odetta learned more folk songs, many from African-American origins, and appears to have had a thirst satisfied for “serious talk,” which Wini Breines claims appealed to many countercultural women who gathered in apartments and cafés, fleeing the monotony of “what they talk about in Indiana,” as one woman claimed, making an oblique reference to suburban living.66

The sexism which women who associated with the Beat movement encountered is well-documented, and in the words of Frida Forsgren and Michael J. Prince, the pursuit of “shining masculine authenticity” among influential Beat authors has obscured the female experience.67 Recoveries of female Beats have been organized around drawing attention to the writings of major women authors and poets, including Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones.68 Others have interpreted Beat domesticity as surprisingly subversive.69 Nevertheless, Odetta herself did not encounter these particular constraints as a young countercultural woman, in part because she launched a career in place of a family, and in so doing, opted out of negotiating between domestic and cultural labor. She also willingly gave up what could have been a life of glamour that other black artists were seeking at this time—a revival, perhaps, of the “talented tenth” approach to black racial uplift at the turn of the twentieth century—as a black female classical vocalist.70

But Odetta’s movement within Beat communities, while it comprised the source of her exposure to the folk music to which she would dedicate her career, nevertheless knew its own set of challenges. Although she did not encounter the same kind of sexism which afflicted her female peers, Odetta nevertheless found herself subject to certain gender-based constraints. After Odetta’s first performance at the Hungry i, she was hired on the spot, although the club’s owner later revoked the offer having heard that the headliner that night had become envious of Odetta stealing the show. But Odetta continued to perform, and was soon booked for acts in some of the most popular folk clubs around the country, including the Tin Angel, the Gate of Horn, the Blue Angel, Gerde’s Folk City and the Village Gate.71 Odetta’s increasingly regular bookings led her to settle in New York’s Greenwich Village, the nascent capital of the folk music world in the late 1950s. As she became a more well-known figure there, she angered a certain “male folk singer” whom she has deliberately kept unnamed, for example, but who nevertheless tried to persuade club owners and managers to keep her show off of regular bookings72 While his efforts had very little effect, they illustrate a wider problem that Odetta encountered given her rare presence as a black woman in the folk music community.

In addition to downright competition, for a time, it appeared that fellow folk musicians and music critics alike did not know how to respond to Odetta and the stage presence she was crafting. Reviews with titles such as “Boss of ‘Work Song’ is a Girl” demonstrate a certain amount of confusion with regard to her gendered and racialized subjectivity that stood in contrast to the norms of the social world she had entered.73 For Odetta, folk music’s rhythms and lyrics provided an opportunity for her to imagine that she was someone else—including a man—creating a musical experience rooted in empathy with experiences apart from one’s own. Yet her content, seemingly masculinized, confused even the counterculturalists with whom she associated because they had espoused quite a different idea about what women folksingers should be like. In their minds, women folk singers were not very unlike their middle-class counterparts. They were passive, thin, shy, and did not attempt to overshadow their male peers. Odetta, in contrast, was determined to develop her own “deeply personal idiom.”74 With songs borrowed from Paul Robeson and Lead Belly, she went on stage at once shouting, at once loudly and intentionally exhaling as she performed work songs like “Mule Skinner Blues” and sea chanteys reminiscent of a male crew aboard a freight ship in “Santy Anno.”75 Odetta’s breathy, shouted songs, accompanied by a harsh, up-tempo strum of her guitar, permitted her indulge in previously repressed emotions. “When I went into that state,” Odetta said of her performances, “I got my rocks off and dealt with my anger.”76 In so doing, Odetta engaged in a sung “poetics of presence” which defined the Beat way of life, even if she did not recognize herself in that light.77 Odetta fully embraced her presence and the present moment on stage as she let her feelings about her own perceived marginality in a society whose standards for racial and gendered respectability she could not meet wash over her and spill out into the audience—a moment of cultural reckoning for them both.

If Odetta appeared to masculinize the folk tradition, she further unsettled her listeners by feminizing the blues. A subset of “folk” music which itself encompassed a broad range of genres, cultural critics during Odetta’s early career believed that blues songs offered a window into a narrow and particular range of African-American experience. According to ethnomusicologist Maria Johnson, in the mid-twentieth century, the criteria for a legitimate blues musician was to “be Black, male, old, born into poverty on a farm in the rural South, and taught by a legend on a cheap mail-order or home-made guitar.”78 A cadre of blues-devoted folk purists believed that any other blues singer was inauthentic and looking to make a profit from misrepresenting a rich if marginalized musical tradition. They had particular disdain for a subset of blues-singing women whose musical style derived from vaudeville theater in the 1920s. Unlike the hardships known to their rural male counterparts, vaudeville blues singers were primarily women who Johnson suggests were “urban, professional, theatrical . . . [and] glamorous.”79 While Odetta largely rejected the trappings of glamor, purists criticized her for her classical background and poised demeanor, all of which countered the forms which characterized an acceptable blues performance style. When Odetta’s concerts consisted primarily of blues songs, including vaudeville hits such as “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” or “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” critics complained of her tendency to “overplay the dramatics” of these songs and recoiled against her use of piano accompaniment.80 Blues devotees could not accept Odetta’s transgressive decision to mix a “down-home,” “strong, gutsy juke-joint style”—an approach to the blues overwhelmingly attributed to men—with a more feminine, “polished” approach.81 While reviewers, usually those with minimal training in blues or folk music, sometimes named her “Queen of the Blues,” committed folklorists and cultural critics considered her blues illegitimate. Folk and blues reviewer John Wilson once labeled her music “less blues” and “more blues-type” to underscore its lack of authenticity.82

By the late 1950s, Odetta’s musical style and repertoire had already transgressed significant racial and gendered lines as she navigated a musical world as a black female counterculturalist who inverted the conventionally gendered forms of folk and blues music. Yet for whatever uncertainty her transgressions elicited, her career continued on an upward trajectory. Her first album, released in 1956, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” was praised for its “electrifying sincerity,” and while she attracted criticism from folk purists, other media outlets offered her substantial praise.83 Positive reviews from cultural critics in the New York Times were formative to many folksingers’ early careers, and Times reviewer Robert Shelton declared that “Odetta had the most glorious new voice in American folk music.”84 Indeed, Odetta was no stranger to glowing reviews of her performances. Jay Harrison of the New York Herald Tribune celebrated her debut performance at Carnegie Hall for providing “a picture of a strong and indomitable people . . . in organ sounds and cathedral colors.”85 The Cornell Daily Sun remarked that although Odetta was an “unusual phenomenon” among folksingers in that she was not a young man with a “weak” voice, “folk enthusiasts [grew] ecstatic when they [heard] Odetta’s powerful, rhythmic voice and her exciting, effective guitar working together on a song.”86 Gradually, regional and national newspapers from around the country would print similar reviews upon hearing Odetta sing. The staff writers at these publications cared little for the questions which so preoccupied folk critics who were lost when trying to fit Odetta into acceptable confines for an “authentic” black woman performer. The reviewers that general newspapers sent to her concerts appreciated her powerful voice and meticulously performed programs, and expressed this appreciation in their coverage.

Around this time, Odetta began to attract the attention of two high profile leaders of what would later be informally called the new “folk scene.”87 At least two years after her first album’s release, and some ten years after her initial foray in the folk world in the late 1940s, folk and calypso singers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte would consider themselves “her special fans.”88 They noticed that when Odetta performed, she established a certain intimacy with her audiences.89 She used a combination of humor, a warm, conversational tone when she spoke, and a strategic vacillation between upbeat and more serious songs to develop camaraderie with concert goers.90 Experience taught her not to be “too preachy” when discussing controversial issues and she did not hesitate to tease shy audiences who remained quiet when she gave them an enthusiastic “hi” when walking out on stage at the start of a show: “How would you like to say ‘hi’ to someone and not have them answer?,” she playfully asked.91 Moreover, the force of her powerful contralto was deeply affecting to her listeners. Her rendition of the civil rights spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved,” for example, persuaded an audience of 15,000 to “join in a human chain while they swayed from side to side while echoing in unison a part of the freedom hymn.”92

This quality of Odetta’s was the very same trait which inspired Pete Seeger, the most well-connected and influential personality in American folk music, to befriend her. He, too, was known for his capacity to bring audiences of different backgrounds and beliefs together. But Seeger was also known for much more than his performance style and his way with audiences. The son of renowned ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger and close friend of Woody Guthrie and the folk song-collecting Lomax family, Seeger was raised among a community of New York radicals who saw folk music as “people’s music,” a phrase meant to emphasize its unique appeal to members of an interracial and interethnic working class.93 He dedicated his own career, which briefly peaked when he joined the folk quartet The Weavers, to nationwide and even worldwide travels to gather, record and perform in concert as many folk songs as he could. Although his reach was limited thanks to a blacklist under the anti-radical purges of the Red Scare, he devoted himself in the postwar era to introducing middle-class concert goers to obscure communities in the past and present they would not otherwise have encountered, from enslaved to wage laboring songwriters as he performed his own versions of their songs.94 Belafonte, although his career path differed from Seeger’s, had a reputation which also held significant weight as a profoundly successful Broadway singer and recording artist, and later as a civil rights activist and close confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr.95

However, it was not the idiosyncrasies of Odetta’s stage presence which garnered notice from fellow folk artists, who in many cases preferred normative gender relations to Odetta’s flouting of these conventions. While the folk world gave women artists unprecedented opportunity to pursue their creative potential alongside of men, aspiring folk women often behaved in unthreatening ways as they paid homage to an informal hierarchy which characterized relationships between veteran and aspirant folk artists. Later women artists would follow a model established by Joan Baez which displayed open loyalty to the folk community’s leadership—particularly Pete Seeger—and sang politically charged protest songs in a passive, plaintive, normatively feminine register for the time.96 Tanisha Ford well-captures the image that Baez projected. According to Ford, “Baez had long, thin limbs, equally long and straight hair, and olive skin. As she popularized a folk ballad called ‘Come All Ye Young and Tender Maidens,’ Baez herself became the model of the young maiden. Girls across the country began growing their hair long to resemble Baez.”97 But in contrast to Baez and others, Odetta, with her work songs and her forceful stage demeanor, rejected this approach.98 As a result, the figureheads of the folk community took notice of her work, and offered her praise, only on grounds which they could understand, such as the cordial relationships she had built with her audiences. Her artistic persona—dignified, yet Beat; transgressive of the gender conventions which characterized folk and the blues; reminiscent of African American struggles even while the performer herself knew significant acclaim from the launch of her career—nothing about the uncommon road Odetta traveled and the unique identity she espoused attracted the attention of folk leadership. Instead, it was when aspects of her performance presence mirrored their own—and the wider conventionality of the folk world they navigated—that they began to take notice of her.

Still, attracting the attention of influential members of the growing folk song movement afforded Odetta important opportunities. In 1958, she became one of few artists to headline in the first annual gathering of the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island—an event that invited only the most renowned of folksingers to perform—and in late 1959 she was invited to perform on Harry Belafonte’s television program Tonight with Belafonte.99 While Belafonte had a much larger following than Odetta, he admitted that her “dramatic approach to folk songs has had a strong influence on his own interpretations.”100 On the program, Odetta performed pleasant duets with Belafonte such as “There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza.”101 But what reviewers found most memorable about her performance were a series of solo songs, including powerful renditions of “Water Boy,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” and “Since I Laid My Burden Down.”102 Odetta performed to rapt reviews as watchers took note of her “astounding voice” and “emotional conviction.”103 Odetta’s appearance on the well-watched program catapulted her into national exposure. Following her performance she received phone calls over her a flurry of opportunities which ranged from an act in an Italian music festival to a role in a Broadway play written by Langston Hughes.104

There’s little doubt that Odetta’s collaborations with Harry Belafonte offered her important opportunities—she attributes her appearance on Tonight with Belafonte to a turning point in her career. But more than his friendship and support, something which meant a great deal to other aspiring artists, it was the exposure that Odetta gained from appearing on Belafonte’s television program which advanced her career.105 Her relationship with Belafonte did not, for example, resemble the closer and more affable one which South African singer Miriam Makeba shared with him in the early 1960s. Belafonte played a crucial role in providing asylum in the United States to Makeba when her condemnation of apartheid made it no longer safe for her to remain living in her native South Africa.106 Belafonte became incensed when, just a few weeks after Odetta’s appearance on his program, her manager, Albert Grossman, invited Makeba to dinner with him and Odetta. Grossman, an ambitious and sometimes aggressive businessman, managed several folk performers at the start of their careers, including Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. At dinner he asked to manage Makeba, a request which Belafonte found disrespectful, believing that Grossman wanted to take advantage of Makeba’s vulnerable position as a newcomer to the U.S. and the American music industry.107 Belafonte perceived Odetta’s willingness to allow the shrewd Grossman an opportunity to pounce on Makeba’s money-making potential as an ethical lapse in the lengths to which she was willing to travel on her own path to success. Belafonte cast her behavior in racial terms when he chastised Odetta for contributing to Makeba’s experience with “some of the most inhuman pressures known unto many artists, including the Negro artists of our own country,” and pressures which Belafonte believed that Odetta herself had, at one time or another, surely been “victim.”108

Later collaborations between Odetta and Belafonte suggest that this moment of conflict between the two artists eventually came to a resolution. Importantly, Belafonte’s decision to confront Odetta about Grossman’s management offer overlooks the fact that, by Belafonte’s own admission, it was Grossman himself who approached Makeba with his proposal, even if Odetta had organized the dinner between them. In an interview with LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Odetta said of Grossman that “he built his business on my back and I never benefitted from it.”109 That Odetta, much like Makeba, was navigating her own way through the everyday exploitations of a commercial music career and a profit-oriented white manager went unacknowledged. But Belafonte explained that his rage came from his “emotions” which ran “deep” with regard to Odetta “as a human being and as an artist,” and his anger was likely also derived from what was, by this time, not only his growing personal involvement with Makeba’s affairs, but with the wider anti-apartheid and transnational civil rights struggle which she represented.110

Ruth Feldstein has documented Belafonte’s involvement with the growing American sentiment against the apartheid regime in South Africa. With media outlets declaring 1960 the “Year of Africa,” it became more common around liberal integrationist circles in American politics to condemn the regime’s use of violence to suppress protest movements.111 Although American officials worried about the potential for several African nations to turn to international communism—1960 saw the independence of seventeen countries and with it, widespread transitions of state power—U.S. officials nevertheless also openly criticized apartheid rulers, even if they did little to otherwise put pressure on the South African government.112 Belafonte served on the board of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), dedicated to exposing the routine abuses of the South African populace practiced under apartheid. With assistance from the NAACP, the ACOA raised $15,000 to assist dissidents targeted by the regime. Feldstein explains that the work of groups like the ACOA, and activists like Belafonte in particular—along with other political and cultural figures who included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Robinson—contributed to an increasingly anti-apartheid sentiment among antiracist members of American society.113 Considered Makeba’s “Big Brother,” in her own words, Belafonte drew from personal funds to assist the artist in her move from South Africa to the United States.114 Makeba’s music, some of which was inspired by African American artists like the radical baritone Paul Robeson, “[bursted] at the seams of apartheid,” and added to the growing global cosmopolitanism of the American civil rights movement as it identified with the repressions that other nonwhites faced around the world.115

At the same time that Belafonte was helping Miriam Makeba to settle her affairs, Odetta was similarly participating in activities which suggest her support for African decolonization initiatives. In December, 1961, for example, she performed at the Amsac Festival in Nigeria, organized in part by the American Society of African Culture.116 The program featured other prominent African American cultural figures, including poet Langston Hughes and blues singer Nina Simone.117 The conflict between Odetta and Belafonte—which originated from the actions of Albert Grossman—suggest emotions which derived from the politically charged atmosphere which both artists absorbed as they each pursued civil rights initiatives from a transnational perspective. The conflict also demonstrates, however, that Odetta’s support from Belafonte, a powerful figure in the music industry, was not always guaranteed, and the relationship suffered points of disagreement. But Odetta continued to gain influence and success through her own independent pursuits even as these conflicts occurred, and in spite of a manager who she claims did not always take her opinions seriously or seek sufficient compensation for her work. These events, testify, therefore, to Odetta’s career as marked by autonomy and self-advocacy, rather than reliance on other figures in her life, including Belafonte and her influential manager.


Black Liberation through the Empathetic Imagination: Odetta and Civil Rights

As Odetta’s cultural influence grew through the 1960s, she found that civil rights groups would “call upon” her with increasing frequency to perform benefit concerts to draw attention to civil rights causes or to raise funds.118 Just as Odetta’s career had already reached a certain amount of maturity by the 1960s, so also had the civil rights movement. In Odetta’s words: “There were things and people gathering in this country . . . a long time before Mrs. Parks said ‘not today.’ With that and the amalgamation and trust that we [had] in Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., things were formulated and brought together.”119 Odetta’s performances contributed one element to the complex of cultural, political, legal, and economic changes in favor of racial integration and equality which members of the civil rights movement had been steadily pursuing since at least the Depression era. As Odetta described, activists were seeking these changes separately until they organized around the broad mantel of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership and his vision of racial integration achieved through a protest strategy of non-violent direct action.120 Activists, including the leadership of the NAACP, were aware of Odetta and her songs which conversed with audiences about racial “injustice, prejudice, history, and hierarchy.”121 While members of the NAACP knew about Odetta, as a folk revivalist, at the beginning of her career she nevertheless played primarily for white audiences, once noting in an interview that at one time whites were far more likely to invite her to perform than nonwhites.122 This was in large part a result of the world that Odetta traveled in as a folk artist. Folk music tended to attract white counterculturalists rather than African American concert goers who feared that folk music involved little more than cultural caricature of their musical heritage. But over time, she was able to convince skeptics about her music’s capacity to communicate the African American experience in a way that did not exploit it, even as she reinvented it for the needs of the present.

By the mid-1960s, NAACP coordinators had asked Odetta to perform at dozens of events, including a variety of concerts and balls.123 Labor organizations which were attuned to racial issues, such as the Detroit Labor Forum, also held Odetta concerts, lauding the “outstanding singer of blues, spirituals and folk songs” for coming to perform.124 Other groups still, such as the Anti-Defamation League or even small organizations on college campuses, such as the Young Christian Students, a Catholic social justice club, held Odetta concerts.125 In addition, in 1963 Odetta became involved with an initiative launched by the Artists Committee for Freedom and Justice, who asked shoppers to boycott Christmas shopping in response to the tragic bombing of the Sixteenth Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four children in a Sunday school.126 Odetta played at so many benefit concerts through the 1960s that her appearances began to comprise the bulk of her influence. While her songs never topped mainstream music charts, she became a well-known presence among labor and race activists.127

Through the 1960s, Odetta revered King and his leadership over the civil rights movement, and was happy to lend her voice to the cause of racial equality. Nevertheless, she never fully threw herself into King’s specific vision for civil rights reform—“nonviolent direct action,” as he described it, by way of civil disobedience to achieve an integrated “beloved community.”128 She attended the 1963 March on Washington, but on the whole she refrained from joining picket lines or grassroots demonstrations. When a reporter asked her why she refused to join these gatherings, she replied derisively that “I could run around like a chicken with its head cut off. But you have to choose. Many times it is felt you’re not accomplishing anything unless you get your head knocked.”129 Odetta found the pacifist strategy that King championed not only ineffective, but wrong-headed. She rejected King’s message which called on demonstrators to sustain physical and emotional injuries to expose the violent lengths that segregationists were willing to go to in order to maintain a legal and social order of racial separation and hierarchy. On the contrary, she believed that “there is strength in not allowing oneself to be crushed” in the first place.130 Odetta’s attitude toward King’s approach to civil rights activism, which saw little value in mass demonstrations, at first glance reflects the attitudes of the black middle class which, through the 1930s and 1940s, extoled organizations like the NAACP and its gradual approach to eliminating de jure segregation via legal reforms.131 Although by the early 1960s officers at the NAACP had largely supported mass demonstrations even as they continued to bring cases of discrimination to the courts, Odetta’s beliefs appear to hearken back to an earlier era when mass demonstrations cut through the black community along class lines, with labor activists and rank-and-file members of the working class supporting them, and elites with access to “the press, the pulpit and public opinion,” according to Beth Thompkins Bates, disdaining them.132

But rather than reflect a class-based approach—her own complex relationship to a wider politics of respectability notwithstanding—Odetta’s views were not informed by a class-oriented identity, but instead reached more deeply into what bell hooks has described as “loving blackness as political resistance.”133 By the mid-1960s, Odetta would more openly mourn the passing of Malcolm X and the black liberationist approach he took to race relations in American society than his more moderate, liberal counterpart in Dr. King. Instead of aligning herself completely with the approach of either leader, she claimed that she had an “unsigned commitment” to political movements, including civil rights.134 And although she sang hundreds of benefit concerts for civil rights causes, she preferred to think of herself as offering her vocal talent to accomplish three general goals that could apply to many settings: “(1) self-affirmation, (2) encouragement and to (3) gain money for needed projects.”135

Odetta’s concern with the approach taken up by King makes sense when considered in light of her life-long preoccupation with “self-affirmation.”136 As a folk singer, Odetta was on a journey toward self-discovery and acceptance premised on her connection with the folk tradition. She considered herself an

interpreter of folk songs which encompasses more than folk music handed down from 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.137

Her immersion in these songs enabled her to reclaim—or more accurately, reinvent through folk performance—a black cultural heritage for herself, a move which recognized the political contests waged in not only public venues, but within the innermost recesses of one’s individual identity. She feared that King’s methods would cultivate a generation of black activists who operated on white terms of engagement in order for whites to accept them rather than negotiate life on their own terms.138 Odetta was more interested in reclaiming for herself and her listeners a version of the African American past which would affirm their black identity in the face of oppressive structures—which were cultural, social and emotional, as much as legal—that regularly suppressed it. In this way, she sought to decolonize her mind. According to bell hooks’ characterization of this very personal form of decolonization, Odetta’s decision “[broke] with the kind of white supremacist thinking which suggests that [African-Americans] are inferior, inadequate, [and] marked by victimization.”139 Odetta knew that she was part of a generation of urban folksingers who, “according to the purest definition . . . [were] not folksingers” at all, as she once admitted in an interview.140 Rather than bring music from the past back into the present, perfectly intact and true to its cultural context—to resurrect “authentic” folk songs as traditional folklorists would have claimed—she refracted folk songs she learned through the prism of her own interpretive lens to make a statement about matters in the present. For Odetta, her immersion in the folk tradition was about addressing the concerns of the present moment. Odetta once commented on the relationship between folk song and present-day injustices:

The thing is, we are at a time when people have walked on the moon, and it is a very highly technical and mechanized world . . . But our basic emotions are the same as primitive man and woman and that’s what we need to attend to. I’ve never chopped cotton and I’m not necessarily talking about chopping cotton when I am singing about chopping cotton. It’s that desolate, desperate, overworked feeling of unfairness, or whatever, that I feel in my own life, in Los Angeles, in New York. Wherever.141

Odetta’s chief contribution to the civil rights movement lied in a venue she provided for her audiences to recognize and communicate with the inequality that shaped the black experience in American life. She stimulated the empathetic imagination of her listeners while she appealed to a “sincere and basic” tradition, put to catchy words and melodies, which would captivate them.142 For herself, the music helped Odetta to gradually step out of the emotional responses to inequality, including fear and anger, which she harbored in her youth. She found that she could not reach others with her songs without first developing herself, and she struggled with a penchant for quiet and subservient behavior, habits which she attributed to growing up in a landscape of racial inequality.143

To resist the entrenchment of white attitudes which shaped her demeanor and sense of self, Odetta began to participate in a wider African ethnic revival which characterized some parts of the civil rights movement. Odetta had let her hair grow naturally from her youth, a move which Tanisha Ford has stated caught the attention of some who came into contact with her. They openly wondered if she was a newcomer to the United States from Africa, for as Ford observed, in the “American imaginary, unprocessed hair was synonymous with Africanness.”144 Odetta’s fascination with an African-based fashion sensibility originated not from direct exposure to African culture necessarily, but from African dress and styles which were then popular around Greenwich Village.145 As Odetta’s performance identity developed over time, she began to compliment her natural hair with pieces from traditional African dress which she incorporated into her appearance. In particular, she replaced her dark dresses—without which she claimed she could not become a good “worker . . . or this, or that”—with brightly colored West African dashikis accented with silk headscarves tied in bows.146 A paralyzing self-consciousness she harbored about her legs in particular began to fade, and weight she carried, which she attributed to the pains of national wounds which she absorbed on her body, dissipated.147 At times it returned, but Odetta no longer chafed against it as she did at an earlier moment. In later life, she complimented her performance dress with a beaded braid that extended to the middle of her forehead and a pendant around her neck that featured the words “I Am.”148 She accepted herself for having “a kind of beauty” as a black woman that she did not earlier recognize.149 While at first glance these changes may seemingly constitute little more than appearance-based minutia, Odetta’s body, which earlier caused her a great deal of shame, became a key site of her own gradual self-acceptance and emancipation. Odetta spoke at length to changes she was making to her appearance, testifying to its importance in her own self-perception and understanding of her personal and professional growth.

Odetta’s transformation of her image was, in addition, not limited to her own personal experimentation with a shifting performance and cultural identity, though her changing image greatly affected her personally. Tanisha Ford has suggested that Odetta, along with several friends and colleagues in the music and entertainment industries, including Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, and Abbey Lincoln, embraced a personal aesthetic which Ford called an “African soul style,” which combined music, dress, beauty and politics in a collective language of cultural resistance.150 This emerging cultural trend was inspired by both the civil rights movement and new Pan-African initiatives which linked the civil rights struggle in the United States to decolonization efforts abroad.151 If African countries were seeking political independence from their colonizers, several African-American women were decolonizing their own concept of what constituted physical beauty.152 Given Odetta’s identification with this new cultural impulse to reshape white standards of appearance-based norms, it is small wonder, in fact, that she showed more open support for Malcolm X upon his assassination than Dr. King. Like Malcolm X, Odetta had gone through a personal transformation in which she transitioned from adhering to a white status quo in her demeanor, and feeling ashamed of her body’s inability to meet white feminine beauty ideals. When he became a prominent speaker for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X would revile his own attempts to meet these standards for men, from conking his hair to locating his early resistance to white authority in a “zoot suit,” a World War II anti-draft uniform.153 Members of the NOI ultimately participated in a very different version of a reinvented African identity. In keeping with the principles of the community’s interpretations of Islamic principles, NOI members observed dietary restrictions and placed a premium on black Muslim women observing high standards of modesty. Crucially, their aesthetics derived also from espousing, in the words of Manning Marable, a “black nationalist message of racial pride.”154

As she engaged further with Pan-Africanism, Odetta began to use her body as a conduit for folk transmission as she donned West African garb to compliment the content of her songs, rather than preferring not to “admit that [she] had” a body at all.155 Odetta’s journey toward recognizing and affirming her own subjectivity through folk culture accounts for why she found the message of black liberation more appealing than its integrationist counterpart. She relinquished her belief that she was inherently inferior because she did not follow the conventions of normative whiteness on her body and her performance image, conventions derived from mainstream cultural spaces as well as the world of folk music. Black liberationists, too, championed the idea of valuing blackness on its own terms rather than having black individuals mimic whites. For Odetta, folk became a site of self-reinvention and a form of cultural influence which she disseminated to her audiences. Unlike many civil rights activists, Odetta’s approach to racial liberation was ultimately cultural and emotional rather than legal or political, involving an internal freeing of the self.


Freedom’s Possibilities and Costs: Gender, Feminism, and Odetta’s Personal Life

Although Odetta’s immersion in the folk tradition allowed her to construct a more substantive sense of self, she nevertheless endured short-lived, tumultuous relationships with male partners throughout the 1960s. In 1959 she wed Daniel Gordon, her concert coordinator, and settled into an apartment with him in Chicago.156 But Odetta did not settle in for long. Her frequent concert bookings took her to many parts of the country and the world, and the two saw little of each other. In addition, folksinger Judy Collins has claimed that Daniel Gordon was interested in pursuing other women, including herself, once agreeing to book concerts for her in hopes of striking up a relationship.157 Gordon’s infidelity and Odetta’s absences ultimately proved too much for the relationship to withstand, and the couple divorced just a few years into their marriage. Later, in 1967, newspaper outlets reported that Odetta married Australian painter Garry Shead, although the couple did not persist past a brief engagement. Laughing in response to a question about Shead, Odetta reported to Jet magazine that “you might say, we got divorced before we got married. We’re still friends. But I don’t want to talk about our relationship. That is over, definitely.”158 Odetta had a lifelong insistence on keeping the details of her private life genuinely private, divulging very little information about her fleeting romances to inquisitive interviewers. On a few occasions, however, she did provide rare glimpses into her daily life. Odetta never had children, once commenting that “with my career, a child might have suffered. A lot of damage might have been done, more than if I were a regular civilian bringing up a child.”159 She also mentioned that she sometimes led the life of a “hermit,” holing up in her apartment for weeks on end writing poetry and contemplating new interpretations of folk songs.160 For all of her earlier critiques of the transience of a life in folk song, Odetta’s life began to fall into a rhythm of many months on the road offset by periods of isolated reprieve in her apartment.

Odetta led a life a relative solitude that appeared to have known lonely moments, once stating that her voice gave her rare and magnificent opportunities in her life, but also came at a cost in that she lacked the stability of family life. Odetta’s refusal to share much more about her private life makes it impossible to determine whether her solitude offered her relative contentment, but her life situation does testify to the challenges she faced as a young black woman who choose a career as a performing artist in the mid-twentieth century when such a path among women was quite rare. In this sense, her experience resembles the uncommon road taken by other female troubadours, who as Sheila Whiteley points out, successfully earned “a living through selling [their] creativity,” but who were ensnared in a “seemingly irreconcilable dilemma of wanting a man but, at the same time, needing to be free.”161 Striking out on her own, Odetta also implicitly rejected the gender politics of the black liberationism she championed at other moments. While she was more likely to agree with personalities like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael than Martin Luther King, Jr. on problems pertaining to race relations in American society, she ignored the black liberationist stance that women who chose alternatives to traditional patriarchal families participated in the oppression of black men.162 For whatever lonely moments her path offered, she was “there by choice,” as Whitely has suggested of artists who came during and after her time, such as Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.163 Odetta chose to locate her identity in herself rather than her attachments, and in so doing, she helped to expose the mask of femininity worn not only by members of normative middle-class American life, but by other counterculturalists who believed that their liberation rested on continued women’s oppression.164

In the same way that Odetta embraced American political authority, in the 1970s she also largely rejected the rise of second-wave feminism, or at least what she perceived as a set of social labels which the movement appeared to serve. When interviewed about her thoughts on second-wave feminism and related movements, Odetta once jokingly replied, “this is a fascinating day. Women’s liberation; gay liberation; rabbit liberation. It’s a glorious time!”165 Although Odetta has nowhere declared herself a feminist, her activities in her later career betrayed her formal distance from feminist initiatives. In the 1970s, Odetta began to perform and hold workshops at a number of women’s festivals around the country, including the National Women’s Music Festival, Women Working for Change, the Association of Women’s Music and Culture, and Sisterfire!.166 These music festivals were aimed at recognizing the diversity of American women’s self-expression through song and supporting women who sought creative careers. The annual gatherings of Sisterfire! addressed concerns that included a gender gap in the music industry, equal pay, women’s oppression around the world, and the Equal Rights Amendment.167 More than campaign for more professional opportunities for women in the arts, Sisterfire! also sought to forge new cultural perceptions around women, combating “racism, sexism and homophobia” by creating a space for women of multiple orientations to gather and affirm nonconforming identities.168 Odetta’s participation in these folk festivals suggests that she shared a commitment to the causes they espoused even if she did not openly align herself with them when interviewed on her commitment to matters of identity politics later in her career.


Performing a Politics of Respectability

Curiously, however, although Odetta’s lifestyle and career exposed and checked the oppressions known to many black women in American society, just as she adopted a lukewarm stance on second-wave feminism, her approach to liberating one’s identity through folk was not particularly subversive in a formal political sense. Other women folk singer-songwriters such as Joan Baez or Buffy Sainte-Marie would contest patriarchal power structures through protest strategies that landed them prison sentences or would put them on FBI watch lists for decades.169 It became common among folksingers with commitments to civil rights, radical politics, and pacifism to encounter formal repression of their work. Odetta, on the contrary, shared an amicable relationship with government officials throughout her career, and rather than experiencing policing of any kind, was sometimes courted by political elites to perform at events that would positively depict them. In 1963 she performed with Judy Collins, Lynn Gold, the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, and Josh White for a “Dinner with the President” event sponsored by the respectable Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, a civil rights organization that specialized in opposing anti-Semitism.170 The CBS-filmed event highlighted the work of the Kennedy Administration in advancing civil rights causes, with B’nai B’rith offering Kennedy a Humanitarian Award.171

In addition to her appearances at events that celebrated traditional political and institutional structures in fighting social inequality in the United States, Odetta also amassed a great deal of personal wealth from her performances, including performances for activist causes. According to correspondence typewritten by her manager Albert Grossman, she once agreed to sing for a Catholic social justice organization on a college campus for a rather handsome “minimum concert fee of $1,000,” although her standard fee was $1,250.172 It was not by any means uncommon for a performing artist of Odetta’s stature to charge large sums for performances. Joan Baez, for example, charged nearly the same amount at $1,200 at the launch of her career.173 Nevertheless, whereas Baez reduced her concert fees to $2.00 per ticket in the late 1960s, evidence does not suggest that Odetta engaged in similarly charitable efforts.174 Her wealth, however, demonstrates that Odetta could navigate channels of respectability even while championing controversial causes in American life. Odetta sometimes merged this commitment to respectability with her performance image. In a 1965 interview, for example, she offered reporters “a Winston” while she described herself as outside of the “Bob Dylan, Joan Baez cults.”175 “I feel more and more that my role as an entertainer is to educate,” she commented, though not through grassroots demonstrations.176

Although there were important differences between them, at the height of their popularity, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan spoke to the alienation of young members of the white middle class in an era that lacked material scarcity and with it, a “depth of meaning,” according to Grace Elizabeth Hale.177 They adopted romanticized notions of marginalized populations, and celebrated, in Hale’s words, “expressive black culture,” to dissent from the perceived economic, political and cultural homogeneity of the world in which they grew up.178 Odetta recognized that folk music represented the expression of ordinary people across many times and cultures, but she did not perceive or value it as an inherently low form of cultural production. Hailing from a black cultural context which did not have access to the same kind of economic privilege that these young whites knew, and as such, held no romanticized notions of marginality, Odetta did not worry about whether her music derived meaning from deprivation. Rather, Odetta has stated that “in folk music, complex emotions are spoken about with such simplicity that it’s the highest form of art to me.”179 By her own admission, Odetta relied on “folk” as aesthetic form capable of educating her audiences about cultural otherness. In this context, she sought to educate her fans and listeners as she performed her own approach to blackness as her songs, which often drew from the Mississippi Delta Region of the American South. In so doing, she encouraged her audiences to imaginatively and emotionally connect with the history and memory of the black experience there. Such identification would, Odetta hoped, drive her listeners to seek social reform in their present-day affairs, particularly concerning racial issues.180

While her music and her performance image harbored deeply transgressive elements, Odetta interpreted them through a lens of respectability uncommon in the folk world, and in wider intellectual currents among African American communities, through the 1960s and 1970s. The politics of respectability had been losing traction among black communities who no longer strove for economic, cultural, or intellectual achievement to present themselves as mirroring their respectable white counterparts in the earlier part of the twentieth century.181 Odetta’s appeal to folk culture as a form of art capable of education and inspiration, and her positioning herself as a conduit of this culture, appealed to notions of respectability even as they were in flux. Like her concept of aesthetic beauty, Odetta decolonized her appeals to respectability to suit the value she personally ascribed to the folk tradition, considering folk music, derived from society’s margins, as a form of high art which inspires the imagination.182

In the mid-1960s, folk publicists began to openly worry that the foundation upon which folk music’s popularity in American life—progressive political activism linked with authentic acoustic purity—was weakening. Bob Dylan famously plugged in an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and other well-known folk groups like Peter, Paul and Mary began to write songs like “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.”183 Indeed, the rise of rock, a style that valued experimentation over tradition and one that offered a more forceful and direct critique of social problems, especially the war in Vietnam, seemed to be rapidly sidelining folk’s distinct contributions to American art and activism. Nevertheless, one would not be able to detect such a shift among Odetta’s concert reviews from the period. “Odetta enthralls listeners with simple folk melodies,” a reviewer wrote in 1974, adding that Odetta is “a folk purist, one who has a deep-rooted understanding of the cultures of the common people and expresses their thoughts and feelings in musical terms,” including “plantation slaves and farmers taking home 15 cents a day.”184 While the now aging community of folk-blues purists would likely agree that the reviewer’s characterization of Odetta as a “folk purist” is misguided, the article is otherwise indistinguishable from reviews of Odetta concerts which were published some twenty years before. Indeed, through as late as the early 1980s, folk festivals and concerts continued to abound throughout the United States, with reviewers noting that Odetta’s material, drawn from the “Negro spiritual-folksong tradition” remained consistent through the decades-consistently “sharp,” adding that “whatever she sang, she was always and only Odetta.”185


Liberalism and the Limits of Liberation: Odetta’s Film Career in the 1970s

As Odetta entered the 1970s, her career embarked on a series of new endeavors which took her from the concert stage to the realm of acting in theater productions and in television broadcast series. Around this time, she mentioned to an interviewer that she no longer wanted to be pigeonholed as a folk performer given the versatility of her career.186 Having taken stints in films since the mid-1950s, by the 1970s, Odetta had amassed a considerable line of films which she acted and sang in, including The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), Cinerama Holiday (1955), Sanctuary (1961), and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).187 By the 1970s, Odetta’s interest in distancing herself from the category of folk was a valid one given that “folk” was a label that could hold considerable constraints. But in many ways, Odetta’s film and acting career operated in ways that mirrored her work in folk music. As a long-time singer of folk tunes that conveyed experiences that were not always her own, Odetta was accustomed to the performative mimicry that was essential to good acting. The major difference between her acting and singing careers was that in acting, Odetta would rely on strategically constructed visual scenery, rather than an imaginative use of sound, to advance the work she had been pursuing her entire life: portraying African American experiences drawn from the past to comment on events in the present. Odetta’s acting, particularly in light of the roles she took up in the film and stage productions she became involved in, participated in the process of folk transmission as she reinterpreted characters and plots from African American history for contemporary consumption. However, the medium of theater and television, unlike her folk concerts, had a way of tempering the more provocative elements of Odetta’s commitment to black freedom, dignity and equality. Two films in particular, Sanctuary and The Autobiography of Jane Pittman, depicted black experience in a way that maintained racial and gendered hierarchies rather than dismantled them.

Odetta began acting in films around the same time that she launched her musical career. She accepted her first mid-sized role in the 1961 film Sanctuary, released by Twentieth Century Fox.188 An adaptation of two William Faulkner novels, Sanctuary (1931) and Requiem for a Nun (1951), the film set in the jazz age starred Lee Remick as Temple Drake, a young white woman who, according to film reviewers, was inherently “loose, degenerate of a sort,” and who therefore voluntarily proceeded to live in a brothel after falling in love with a man who raped her, “Candy Man,” played by Yves Montand.189 She shows little interest in another man, Gowan Stevens, who rescued her from the brothel and married her. Temple willingly returns to the brothel with the villainous Candy Man when he returns to pull her away from her new marriage, a fate reviewers described as “worse than death.”190 However, throughout the film, Odetta plays “Nancy,” a combined role of nurse and servant who works as a caregiver to Temple Drake. At the film’s conclusion, Nancy murders an infant son that Temple had with her husband Gowan in order to awaken her to the error of her ways, and prevent her from leaving the legitimacy, safety, and moral foundation of her marriage. Nancy’s decision to “raise [her] hand” against Temple’s son succeeds, and Temple returns to the “sanctuary” of her marriage, thereby attaining eternal salvation.191 Having murdered the child, however, Nancy is condemned to death for her actions, but willingly gives up her life for the sake of Temple’s salvation, aware that forgiveness awaits her and grateful that her sacrifice saved the wayward Temple.192

Film critics, who largely condemned Sanctuary for being little more than a “lurid film drama,” nevertheless praised Odetta’s “finely drawn” portrayal of Nancy, considering it one of the film’s few attributes.193 While Odetta performed the role with seriousness and grace, her character nevertheless reproduced older film tropes for black female characters, more common in earlier part of the twentieth century than the 1960s, regardless of whether the decade’s social movements had yet taken root. As Nancy, she valued the moral outcome of the unmanageable white woman under her care above her own life. In addition, whereas Lee Remick’s character was in touch with her own sexuality, refusing to conform to expectations of herself as a respectably married woman, Odetta’s Nancy was a solitary figure whose sole purpose was to return Temple to the confines of her gender role. Ultimately, Odetta played a female heroine, but one who morally triumphed by valuing moral certitude for a white woman over her own life as a black woman.

While one may be tempted to attribute the limits of Odetta’s role in Sanctuary to its release prior to civil rights-inspired cultural reforms, it is important to recognize that later roles Odetta took up reproduced similarly racialized tropes. In 1974, Odetta played Big Laura in The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. According to Ruth Feldstein, this CBS-aired, made-for-television film attempted to “narrate African American history from slavery to civil rights” through the character “Miss Jane,” played by Cicely Tyson.194 Directed by John Korty and broadcasted in the twilight of the civil rights movement, the film sought to portray its African American cast in a way that departed from common racial stereotypes in film. Odetta’s character in Big Laura was a fearless and assertive woman who led a group of former slaves north at the end of the Civil War. According to Feldstein, she chose “mobility” rather than the stasis of plantation life when the disruptions of war afforded her an opportunity to leave, taking great personal risks to do so. Although she is killed in the battle, Big Laura fights back when a gang of white men attack her northward bound band of former slaves.195 She leaves her son in the care of her daughter Jane, who goes on to live an exceptionally long life—the film is set in 1962, when Miss Jane is 110 years old. The plot climaxes when Miss Jane, subjected to the indignities of slavery and segregation for almost the entirety of her long life, dramatically drinks from a public water fountain designated “whites only,” signaling the triumph of newfound racial equality in American life.196

CBS advertised The Autobiography of Jane Pittman as a television event that viewers could not afford to miss, and interrupted the two-hour long film only once for a commercial break.197 Fifty million Americans tuned in to watch, so many that CBS made the rare decision to air it a second time.198 It went on to receive outstanding reviews. Television critic Pauline Kael declared it “quite possibly the finest movie ever made for television,” Rex Reed decided it was “one of the most profound experiences in the history of film,” and Judith Crist called it “the finest new film of the moment.”199 Other critics, however, were left unimpressed, feeling that the Autobiography abandoned one set of racist tropes for another. Critic Stephanie Harrington, for example, expressed her disappointment at the film’s failure to depict black history in its “complex fullness.”200 For her, the film amounted to little more than the “emasculation of black men, the murder of messiahs, and the endurance of black women.”201 She also found that the movie integrated blacks and whites according to a “liberal stereotype,” increasingly common in the late civil rights era, which portrayed its black protagonists in an inferior and condescending way, particularly when a white Union soldier “lifts the young heroine [Jane], then still a slave, onto a wagon and gently admonishes her not to call him ‘master,’ not to call herself by her slave name . . . and magnanimously offers her one of the pretty names they have for girls back in Ohio,” his home state.202 Feldstein’s analysis also points out that this film was part of a wider trend of films that ignored black liberation and internationalism organized around African decolonization which was then heavily influencing American racial politics.203

As a folk singer and actress, Odetta relied on a carefully curated reinvention of the African-American past to draw attention to the lived experiences of black communities in her present. Nevertheless, it appears that her foray into films, while she chose movies that tended to depict her characters as heroines, limited these characters to roles with which mainstream white audiences would be comfortable. While neither Odetta’s songs nor her films offered audiences an unmediated window into the black past, her songs dialogued about realities that made listeners uncomfortable, particularly when she belted out call and response songs derived from prison chain gangs or echoed Lead Belly’s anguish over segregation when he could find no place to stay after long hours on the road as a performer.204 The movies in which she acted, in contrast, were much more carefully managed by Hollywood producers and television executives, prioritizing their advertisers’ reluctance to have controversial conversations about race relations in American society. No evidence suggests that Odetta was particularly ruffled by these realities, affirming her unwillingness to engage in dissident behavior even as she advocated for racial equality throughout her life. In the mid-1970s, Odetta was offered to play the role of Bessie Smith in an upcoming film about the life of the self-confident blues singer whose love of alcohol and earthy, unadorned songs about black oppression comprised a well-known part of her artistic personality.205 The film was never made, however, amounting to one of Odetta’s greatest career disappointments.206 Had the film been produced, it may have offered Odetta an opportunity to play a black woman in a more daring light.

If Odetta’s foray into filmmaking represented the tamest facet of her performance career, her decision to act in stage productions around the same time permitted her to take on roles that drew attention to racial issues in American life in a more sophisticated way. In 1976, Odetta took her vocal talent to the stage to perform in the opera “Be Glad Then, America.”207 She played the “Muse of Liberty” in the production written by John La Montaine and funded by Penn State University’s Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies.208 While the films Odetta featured in loosely combined historical events with familiar stereotypes, La Montaine’s opera took a very different approach. Fearing that writing an opera for an occasion marking the nation’s bicentennial would give way to “an avalanche of chauvinistic, jingoistic products,” the composer decided to write the opera without relying on any materials that had recently reflected on the events of the American founding. Taking no guidance from “history books, “essays,” “commentaries” or “analyses,” La Montaine wrote only from colonial letters and newspapers which reflected the perceptions of the individuals who lived through the American Revolution.209 La Montaine included the enslaved among those who witnessed the events of the nation’s founding. As the Muse of Liberty, Odetta’s character reflected in song on the paradoxes of the revolutionary emphasis on freedom: “The man not moved with what he reads / That takes not fire at their heroic deeds / Unworthy the blessings of the brave / Is base in kind, and born to be a slave / Freed has a thousand charms a slave can never know . . . a slave can never know.”210 Odetta’s performance in “Be Glad” avoided the easy resolutions to the hardships of racial equality that her films adopted. While she generally did not perform in operas—she affirmed her inability to “put her guitar down” in an interview the year before—“Be Glad” was an opera which afforded her an opportunity to reflect on the nation’s heritage, including its complex racial inheritance, in this form. Unlike the operas she performed in as a younger person, Odetta did not find this particular opera to be remote from social realities that she cared about. Like her work in folk music, perhaps more so than her better-known film appearances, Odetta’s role in this opera allowed her to draw attention to the nation’s historical contradictions, particularly with regard to race relations.


Folk Internationalism: Odetta’s Global Career in the Late Cold War Era

Aside from Odetta’s work in theater and film, in the 1970s she also became a cultural ambassador for the United States. Odetta had long enjoyed international acclaim alongside of her performances in the U.S., having toured in multiple countries throughout Europe, Asia and Africa since the launch of her career.211 Her travels took her to Nigeria, Italy, Austria, Israel, Japan, Malaysia and Australia, among other places, where she was met with rapt reviews.212 Having built her career in the Cold War era, however, never before had Odetta traveled to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, in 1974, an opportunity arose for her to visit several Soviet countries.213

The 1970s saw a brief warming of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. What was initially marked by President Nixon’s visit to the USSR followed by SALT negotiations opened up into cultural exchanges between the nations, whose rivalry operated in the realm of culture and symbolism as much as within political, diplomatic and economic arenas. Cold War cultural ambassadors to the Soviet Union under previous presidential administrations, including Kennedy and Johnson, had to contend with agencies, particularly the U.S. Information Service, carefully shaping their performances to positively portray American “democracy in action” while downplaying attacks which civil rights demonstrators regularly endured.214 This posed a set of complex issues as African-American cultural figures, including jazz artists Dizzy Gillepsie and Louis Armstrong, found themselves forced to reconcile civil rights policies which they found unsatisfactory at home with administrations’ requests for them to represent the United States abroad.215 On the other hand, radical or simply outspoken dissenters of American race relations, including entertainer Josephine Baker and vocalist Paul Robeson, were stymied by FBI intervention from traveling abroad where they were likely to criticize the United States to the Soviet Union and, in Baker’s case, to Cuba.216 But by the 1970s, although racial inequality remained a persistent fact of American society and culture, Nixon’s “law and order” policies had, according to Mary Dudziak, “eclipsed social justice as a politically popular response to racial conflict.”217 Therefore, it “was no longer a critical issue in U.S. foreign affairs.”218 With the violence of the civil rights movement and its corresponding international humiliations now a decade removed from the state of international affairs, Embassy officials did not have to negotiate affairs at home with the image they hoped to project abroad.

It was within this late Cold War context that Odetta was invited to perform in the Soviet Union. Her invitation was part of an initiative to achieve “bilateral relations in this period of détente,” according to a request which the Press and Culture Section of the American Embassy sent to Odetta when the department invited her to perform in the USSR.219 Embassy officials hoped that her performance would, in their words, foster “communication between peoples and remedy against alienation,” developing “a climate of mutual understanding and friendship between the two great peoples,” for “the cause of peace on earth.”220 While Embassy officials recognized Odetta as “an outstanding Negro singer,” they did not highlight anything noteworthy about the African-American musical tradition from which she hailed.221

Rather than sing from the cultural heritage of the black rural South, Odetta was instead to represent a standard Americanness in her performance, effectively erasing the racialized components of her performance identity. Correspondence between Embassy officials and Odetta reveals that the Embassy went through significant financial wrangling to have the Soviet Union fund large portions of Odetta’s travel expenses. The Embassy succeeded, but the lengths they went to in order to make the month-long tour financially expedient for Odetta suggests how earnestly they wanted her to perform. Embassy letters declared that she would be the first ever folksinger to tour the Soviet Union, and they greatly anticipated the exposure she would bring her listeners to American folk culture.222 The Embassy was either unaware of or discounted the fact that folksingers Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and Joan Baez visited the USSR for tours a decade earlier.223 Even so, for them, Odetta’s trip was a far more legitimate and beneficial undertaking, for unlike the others, Odetta did not openly question many U.S. initiatives during the Cold War. She was against the war in Vietnam, but her overall commitment to non-dissident behaviors, and her abundant cooperation with U.S. officials on programs such as her concert tour, made her a prime candidate to represent American folk culture in a managed way, and one that would favorably represent the United States.

In a New York Times review of Odetta’s Soviet tour, “Odetta Rhythms Warm Soviet Listeners,” author Christopher Wren described a rapport which Odetta developed with concert goers in the eleven Soviet countries she visited, including Russia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Azerbaijan.224 Wren noted that Odetta’s performance style, ranging from acapella to featuring only her guitar, created an unusual experience for Soviet listeners, accustomed to hearing artists accompanied by large ensembles. Most, however, “seemed to understand” why Odetta preferred her minimalist style to a more complex arrangement. Nevertheless, when the Minister of Culture in the Azerbaijan Republic mentioned that “it was a pity that she did not [sing] with a large musical ensemble . . . someone else reassured [Odetta] quietly: don’t worry about the minister of culture. Worry about the culture of the minister.”225 The reviewer’s nod to a certain amount of American cultural superiority in this context, complete with the enthusiasm Odetta received from the American Embassy to perform, reveals that, on the whole, she was complicit with American cultural projects in the Soviet Union at this time. Odetta could at times comply at length with the programs of formal power structures. Her transgressiveness as a racial and gendered subject did not equate to the same kind of political dissidence that fellow folksingers would adopt.


Finding and Freeing the Self through Folk Song

In 1984, Odetta agreed to a telephone interview with a North Carolina regional newspaper, the Durham Morning Herald.226 Singing “hello” as she picked up the receiver, Odetta went on to tell a reporter that “music is as important as bread—and as important as roses.”227 Alongside affirming the centrality of music in her life, Odetta also discussed her particular line of work in folk music. Although folk music was seemingly out of vogue, according to Odetta, “I really think there’s another [folk] boom coming about. It’s my feeling that many people in this country are feeling pushed and pinched and up against the wall. Music is the healing stuff.”228 By the mid-1980s, many folksingers lamented what they felt they had lost in the time that transpired between the rights revolutions of the 1960s and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. But Odetta’s apparent optimism in later years is telling, in part because of the central role she played in disseminating the music of the folk throughout her life. When looking exclusively at the performer’s everyday life throughout the 1980s—one full of concert performances, folk festivals to attend, music classes to teach, and productions to act in—one might hardly realize that the folk “boom” had in fact ended at all.

In 1985, in fact, Odetta had participated in “Guitarstream ’85: A Folk Celebration” at Carnegie Hall. A concert narrator declared her “one of the first of her generation of singers to be known by her one name only: Odetta.” The “queenly personage,” as the narrator continued, took the stage at the folk music event, leading her audience in a rendition of “Kumbya,” which she was quick to note was a “Georgia Sea Islands song.” She encouraged the audience to sing with her, and they immediately complied, filling the auditorium with a soft harmony that grew louder and louder. When the spiritual was complete, Odetta cheerfully expressed gratitude to her audience with a simple, “thank you, I needed that.” She spent the next several minutes playfully singing a Scottish ballad in which “a woman from Scotland sang in complaint on the degradation of women” in her time, following it up with renditions of the blues hit “House of the Rising Sun” and Lead Belly’s “Irene, Goodnight,” admonishing her audience of “folky-poohs” to continue singing along with her. Declaring “this is your solo,” she allowed her audience to complete her act while she grew silent amid the musical momentum of the room.

Odetta’s life in folk music was rooted in a personal journey toward self-emancipation in a world that fundamentally rejected her subjectivity as a black female vocalist. She did not fit comfortably into middle-class American norms as a woman who independently supported herself by way of her creative output, and nor did she readily conform to the indignities of racial inequality. In the same vein, Odetta also flouted the conventions of the American folk music revival, refusing to exchange one unequal society for another. Rather than sing mild-mannered folk songs and refrain from competing with male peers, Odetta independently worked her way into the most renowned folk clubs around the country, launching her career in 1956, before critics came to be a revival of interest in American folk song had emerged in any meaningful way. Odetta gendered her production of folk music in ways that leaders of the folk revival could not always comprehend, at once masculinizing folk and feminizing the blues. As a performer of hundreds of benefits concerts for the cause of civil rights, Odetta nonetheless refused to embrace Dr. King’s relatively respectable approach in the form of integration through non-violent action. She found the message of black liberationism more appealing, believing that emancipation must come from within, at a place of complete self-acceptance for who one is without seeking to conform to outside standards. Later, in the 1970s, Odetta took on a tamer performance presence, appearing in liberal films in the late civil rights era and cooperating with American détente programs in the Soviet Union. Importantly, however, in each of Odetta’s decisions, she carved out a path by herself and entirely for herself, unwilling to work completely in the service of any individual, group or cause.

Odetta’s immersion in the folk tradition facilitated what she has called her journey toward “self-affirmation.” Originally singing only to “get [her] rocks off,” expressing anger at the indignities and hostilities she faced in multiple communities as a creative black woman, her identification with those who suffered humiliation, punishment and confinement before her for being who they were inspired her to persevere.229 Odetta mobilized her body and her voice to disseminate the sounds of the folk tradition she was most invested in—the sounds of the rural South—to audiences around the country and the world. Freeing herself from inner turmoil she faced as a young person, she sought to bring this possibility of emancipation to others. Odetta’s version of freedom was not organized around a legal overthrow of existing systems, and in fact she rarely interacted with attempts at achieving formal legal, political or economic equality. Offering only her “voice, approach, and views” to her audiences, as a cultural broker of the folk tradition, Odetta relied on the experiences of the past conveyed in her performers to help her audiences imagine alternatives to the injustices of their present.230 Her performances were, undoubtedly, limited by the constraints of a life in the folk tradition, which did not always depict women in a liberating light. In addition, her films were limited by the modest nature of Hollywood and television producers. Nevertheless, as an actress and singer, Odetta introduced her audiences to sounds that facilitated empathy with a gendered black experience in American life, one whose complexities few represented well. Folk song became the sound of Odetta’s self-emancipation which, in turn, inspired the cultural and affective emancipation of others at a time of immense social and cultural change in American society.



  1. William G. Roy, “Aesthetic Identity, Race and American Folk Music,” Qualitative Sociology 25, no. 3 (2002): 459. See also William G. Roy, Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States (Princeton University Press, 2010).
  2. Accounts of the folk revival typically date it between 1958 and 1964, when folk music enjoyed substantial commercial success and before it was replaced with competing musical genres, including folk rock, rock and roll, and the British invasion. For narratives of the revival which follow this timeline, see Robert S. Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996); Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970, First Edition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival, First Edition (Oxford University Press, 2015).Historical examinations into the cultural contributions of Odetta’s life and career remain relatively scarce. Nevertheless, there has been a recent effort among historians, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and sociologists to address what Eileen Hayes has described as “discursive practices that inadvertently make invisible the heterogeneity of black women’s music experience.” The anthology Black Women and Music: More than the Blues, edited by Hayes and Linda Williams, adopts an intersectional approach to analyzing black women in who contributed to blues, hip-hop, gospel, jazz, show tunes, and similar genres. Contributors consider the epistemologies, market forces, personal training, and major historical events that formed these genres and their particular interpretations by a variety of black women performers working in the mid to late twentieth century. By considering the racialization of gender in American popular music, the volume updates Susan McClary’s now classic Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality which contemplated how gender structures music theory and musical narratives, as well as the “discursive strategies” that women musicians adopted to carve out a space for themselves in an unequal music industry.

    Denise Sullivan’s Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop (2011) has considered the relationship between ideologies of black liberation and music. She mentions the role of folk music in shaping Odetta’s personal sense of self, in particular, judging herself by African-American standards rather than normatively white ones. Tanisha Ford in Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul has examined Odetta’s personal aesthetic as she adorned her body with clothing that reflected her growing immersion in an African ethnic beauty revival that inspired several entertainers alongside of her in the later 1960s, including Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln. Ford explains that Odetta’s African-inspired style sense came from a broader conception of her aesthetic identity as no longer tied to the expectations of the white culture which dominated both the music industry she moved in and the society she navigated. In A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (2011), Grace Hale discusses how folk music came to represent “real” African-Americans who lived, and suffered, under segregation prior to and during the civil rights movement. She suggests that black folk singers became discursively linked with “authenticity” and a sense of moral rightness as they represented the sounds of the rural South. Odetta’s life in music reflects each of these concerns as she experimented with different musical genres and assisted in the cultural production of the civil rights movement. Eileen M. Hayes and Linda F. Williams, eds., Black Women and Music: More than the Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 6–7. Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, Reprint Edition (Minneapolis: Univ of Minnesota Press, 2002), 5–19; Denise Sullivan, Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011), 2–3; Tanisha C. Ford, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 30– 32; Grace Elizabeth Hale, A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 116.

  3. Tonight with Belafonte, script, Odetta Papers, Box 10, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, New York. References to the Odetta Papers will be henceforth abbreviated as “OP.”
  4. Odetta, “Water Boy,” CBS, December, 1959, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXQokJSqNWA.
  5. Odetta, handwritten notes, OP, Box 2; Denise Sullivan, Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011), 2–3.
  6. Chestyn Everette, “‘Tonight with Belafonte’: Or, Odetta Saves the Day,” Tribune Entertainment, December 18, 1959. OP, Box 8.
  7. Odetta, “Water Boy,” CBS, December, 1959, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXQokJSqNWA. “Water Boy: A Negro Convict Song,” arranged in 1922 by Avery Robinson, was very popular among blues and folk singing artists since Paul Robeson began performing it in concert in the mid-1920s. According to Sheila Tully Boyle with Andrew Bunie in Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement, “Water Boy” refers to the deep thirst experienced by chain gangs containing throngs of African-American men serving long prison sentences involving hard labor. The song captures the raw physical hardship of prison labor while also preserving a kernel of the men’s dignity as they compete over their ability to perform the manual work. By the time Odetta began performing “Water Boy,” the song had been performed so many times that it risked forming a hackneyed song choice. Nevertheless, music reviewers, including John S. Wilson of the New York Times, praised her for her “strong rhythmic accents” which revived the song’s overall appeal. Sheila Tully Boyle, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 147, accessed via Google Books. See also “Water Boy: A Negro Convict Song / Arranged by Avery Robinson,” 1922, University of Rochester Research, Eastman School of Music, Sibley Music Library, available at https://urresearch.rochester.edu/institutionalPublicationPublicView.action;jsessionid=6D5566B1147AA731527C59EA44E5C554?institutionalItemId=18152. John S. Wilson, “Odetta Recital is Wide in Scope: Singer Builds Program to Effective Climax, a Stirring Verson of ‘Water Boy,’” New York Times, May 9, 1960, 32.
  8. On the mid-twentieth century American folk music revival, see Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); Robert S. Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996); Rachel Clare Donaldson, “I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity (Temple University Press, 2014); Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (Oxford University Press, 2015); Gillian Mitchell, The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945–1980 (Burlington, VT: Routledge, 2016).
  9. “The Last Word: Odetta,” New York Times, December 4, 2008, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwnAUWhP4hY; Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1.
  10. “Odetta” in Bob L. Eagle and Eric S. LeBlanc, Blues: A Regional Experience (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013), 47.
  11. Carlie Collins Tartakov, “Odetta,” unpublished paper, University of Massachusetts, March 28, 1980, OP, Box 7.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Visionary Project, “Odetta: Life in Music,” 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojliFV8ajWs.
  14. Ben Page interview transcript, October 16, year unknown, OP, Box 2.
  15. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1.
  16. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1; Alan Lomax, Alan Lomax, Selected Writings 1934 – 1937, Ronald D. Cohen, ed., (New York: Routledge, 2005), 1–2.
  17. John S. Wilson, “Odetta: Folksinger Who Survived the Rock Years,” New York Times, January 13, 1981, OP, Box 2; Mikhail Horowitz, “All Folks Know Odetta’s a Gem: A Singer of a Most Mythic Stature,” OP, Box 2.
  18. Mikhail Horowitz, “All Folks Know Odetta’s a Gem: A Singer of a Most Mythic Stature,” OP, Box 2.
  19. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1.
  20. Ibid.
  21. “The Last Word: Odetta,” New York Times, December 4, 2008, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwnAUWhP4hY; Mikhail Horowitz, “All Folks Know Odetta’s a Gem: A Singer of a Most Mythic Stature,” OP, Box 2.
  22. Fr. Norman J. O’Connor, CSP, “Odetta, The Genuine Article: The Superb Artistry and Spiritual Depth of a Sad Folk-Singer,” The Boston Sunday Globe, March 1, 1959, OP, Box 6.


  23. Jacqueline Trescott, “Up from the ‘60s, Odetta Finds a Song: The Private Blues of the Folksinger,” Washington Post, January 16, 1980, OP, Box 1.
  24. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1.
  25. Howard Jay Rubin, “The Magic and the Power: An Interview with Odetta,” The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, no. 109, OP, Box 2.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Virginia Painter, “Odetta Finds Herself through her Music,” The Olympian, April 13, 1982, OP, Box 7.
  28. Ibid.
  29. T.M. Collins, “Odetta: I’ve Never Chopped Cotton,” Moving Line, OP, Box 2.
  30. “Odetta,” Press Department, William Morris Agency, OP, Box 6.
  31. Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music, First Edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 58–59.
  32. “The Last Word: Odetta,” New York Times, December 4, 2008, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwnAUWhP4hY; John Haskins, “Odetta Lives Her Folk Music,” The Kansas City Times, May 15, 1969, OP, Box 9.
  33. “Odetta,” Press Department, William Morris Agency, OP, Box 6.
  34. “The Last Word: Odetta,” New York Times, December 4, 2008, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwnAUWhP4hY.
  35. In Simon Frith’s “Music and Identity,” he argues that music does not merely represent those who compose, perform, and listen to it, but rather that it produces them. For Frith, music is “best understood” as the “self-in-process,” as it combines “performance and story” to link the “individual” to the “social” and vice versa. Odetta’s life in music exemplifies Frith’s observations as she invented and reinvented a sense of self and defined her terms of engagement with the world through song Odetta’s use of folk music, particularly songs she drew from an African-American cultural tradition, are reminiscent of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s notion that race–like folk music–can operate as a “double-voiced discourse.” Race, like folk, refers to a broad category of identity that has been historically inscribed with hierarchical meanings, although racialized subjects have reclaimed such categories for themselves. As a performer and political activist, Odetta appropriated racial meanings of “folk” for liberatory purposes as she drew on songs set on plantations and prisons to “imagine a black nationalism of resistance,” in Higginbotham’s words, through these songs. Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, eds., Questions of Cultural Identity, Reprint Edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs 17, no. 2 (1992): 251–74.
  36. David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001), 14–15; Judy Collins, Singing Lessons: A Memoir of Love, Loss, Hope and Healing (Gallery Books, 2007), 106.
  37. “Visitors’ Gallery-Odetta: Non-Violent Minstrel,” The Jerusalem Post, September 6, 1965, OP, Box 9.
  38. Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk, 7; The marketing of a variety of musical genres, along with songs organized around themes of protest activism, under a broad category of “folk” developed in the Depression era and persisted through the new folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. See Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, New Edition (London: Verso, 2011).
  39. Leroy F. Aarons, “Odetta Comes Out of Her Cocoon,” The Washington Post, September 3, 1966, OP, Box 9.
  40. See note 8 for additional context on the song “Water Boy.” Like “Water Boy,” “John Henry,” a blues song of staggering popularity–recorded some 500 times since it was first commercially released in 1924–makes physical exertion a central theme of its lyrical content. The ballad explores the feats of John Henry, whose story, while containing mythical elements as the song was written and revised over the course of several decades, roughly refers to the events accompanying a Southern railroad company’s decision in the 1870s to replace human railroad track labor with the work of a steam drill. In a public contest, Henry outpaces the mechanical steam drill as he harnesses his superior strength to fasten the track, but dies soon after from the arduous demands of the task. John Henry, an African-American man, was celebrated in interracial labor circles for the symbolic value the ballad placed on human skill and strength, although his tenuous position as a poor worker subject to the changing technologies and the whims of his boss remind listeners of his relative lack of power given the condition of race and labor conditions that existed during his lifetime. For more information on “John Henry,” see Norman Cohen, Folk Music: A Regional Exploration, Greenwood Guides to American Roots Music, Annotated Edition (Westport: CT, Greenwood Press, 2005), 27.
  41. Marilynn Preston, “Magical Odetta Sings of ‘Us’ and Now’ in America,” Chicago Today, March 22, 1970, OP, Box 9.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Visionary Project, Odetta: Life in Music, 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojliFV8ajWs.
  44. “‘Finian’s Rainbow’ Arcs Over Broadway Again,” NPR.org, accessed November 18, 2017, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114294754.
  45. “‘Finian’s Rainbow’ Arcs Over Broadway Again,” NPR.org, accessed November 18, 2017, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114294754; Michael Denning, The Cultural Front, 319.
  46. Visionary Project, Odetta: Life in Music, 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojliFV8ajWs.
  47. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1.
  48. “The Last Word: Odetta,” New York Times, December 4, 2008, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwnAUWhP4hY; Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, in discussion with author, June 9, 2012.
  49. Visionary Project, Odetta: Life in Music, 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojliFV8ajWs.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid.
  52. “The Last Word: Odetta,” New York Times, December 4, 2008, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwnAUWhP4hY.
  53. “The Beat Rebellion: Beyond Work and Marriage,” in Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, First Edition (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1983), 52–67.
  54. Wini Breines, “The ‘Other’ Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls,” in Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 390.
  55. Leonard Wollack, ed., New York: Culture Capital of the World 1940-1965 (New York: Rizzoli, 1988).
  56. See Bill Morgan, Allen Ginsberg, and Nancy Peters, Beat Atlas: A State by State Guide to the Beat Generation in America (San Francisco: City Lights Publishers) and James Campbell, This is the Beat Generation: New York-San Francisco-Paris, (London: Seeker and Warburg), 1999.
  57. Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men, 54.
  58. Erik Mortenson, Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), 18, 40–41; Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Penguin, 1999), 183.
  59. See Norman Mailer, The White Negro (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1967).
  60. Christopher Lowen Agee, “The Emergence of the North Beach Beat Scene,” FoundSF, accessed November 11, 2017, http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_Emergence_of_the_North_Beach_Beat_Scene.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Bill Morgan, The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Tour (San Francisco: City Lights Books), 36.
  63. Ibid., 79.
  64. Visionary Project, Odetta: Life in Music, 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojliFV8ajWs.
  65. John S. Wilson, “Odetta: Folksinger Who Survived the Rock Years,” New York Times, January 13, 1981, OP, Box 2.
  66. Wini Breines, “The ‘Other’ Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls,” in Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Temple University Press, 1994), 393.
  67. Frida Forsgren and Michael J. Prince, eds., Beat Women are Not Beaten Women (Kristiansand, Norway: Portal Books, 2015), 9.
  68. Bill Morgan, The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, Reprint Edition (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011); Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (London: Penguin Classics, 2003); Ann Charters, Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation? (New York: Penguin, 2001); Frida Forsgren and Michael J. Prince, eds., Beat Women are Not Beaten Women (Kristiansand, Norway: Portal Books, 2015); Brenda Knight, ed., Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, First Edition (Berkeley: Conari Press, 1998); Wini Breines, Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties, First Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Erik Mortenson et al., The Philosophy of the Beats, Sharin N. Elkholy, ed., (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012); Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, eds., Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2002).
  69. For example, Erik Mortenson has explained how Diane Di Prima willingly engaged in “mothering” (and “fathering”) tasks to maintain her “pads” which facilitated creative conversation among her regular visitors, and found that work, domestic or otherwise, only became problematic when an individual labored by compulsion. Mortenson, Capturing the Beat Moment, 40.
  70. On the “talented tenth,” see W.E.B. DuBois, The Talented Tenth (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).
  71. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1; Bulletin, The San Francisco Call, October 25, 1953, OP, Box 8; “Gate of Horn, Chicago,” Variety, November 14, 1956, OP, Box 8; Stephen Holden, “Folk City at 25: The Times They are A-Changin’,” New York Times, September 13, 1985, available at http://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/13/arts/folk-city-at-25-the-times-they-are-a-changin.html?pagewanted=all; Petrus and Cohen, Folk City, 159.
  72. Ralph J. Gleason, “Odetta–Where It All Began,” The San Francisco Chronicle, OP, Box 8.
  73. Don Henahan, “Boss of ‘Work Song’ is a Girl,” Chicago Daily News, December 26, 1958, OP, Box 8.
  74. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1.
  75. Odetta biographical information, OP, Box 1; Odetta Sings Ballads & Blues: The Classical Recordings, Audio CD (Empire Musicwerks, 2005).
  76. LaShonda Barnett, ed., I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007), 180.
  77. Erik Mortenson, Capturing the Beat Moment, 1.
  78. Maria V. Johnson, “Black Women Electric Guitarists and Authenticity in the Blues,” in Eileen M. Hayes and Linda F. Williams, eds., Black Women and Music: More than the Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 54.
  79. Ibid.
  80. “Music: Odetta Sings the Blues,” New York Times, November 25, 1977, sec. New Jersey Weekly.
  81. Maria V. Johnson, “Black Women Electric Guitarists and Authenticity in the Blues,” in Hayes and Williams, eds., Black Women and Music: More than the Blues, 54.
  82. Pat Hanna, “Odetta: New Queen of the Blues,” Rocky Mountain News, OP, Box 9; “Music: Odetta Sings the Blues,” New York Times, November 25, 1977, sec. New Jersey Weekly. For a comprehensive history of the twentieth-century development of rhythm and blues, see Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1999).
  83. Current Biography: Who’s News and Why, Vol. 21, no. 1, December 1960, The H.W. Wilson Co., OP, Box 1.
  84. Ibid.
  85. Ibid.
  86. Lawrence E. Goldman, “Odetta . . . Critics Call Her ‘Electrifying,’” The Cornell Daily Sun, December 4, 1959, OP, Box 8.
  87. Folk Scene, Vol. 1, no. 3, May 1973, OP, Box 11.
  88. John Haskins, “Odetta Lives Her Folk Music,” The Kansas City Times, May 15, 1969, OP, Box 9.
  89. Ibid.
  90. Ken Johnson, “Odetta’s Songs Sway Emotions of Audience,” The Globe and Mail, October 17, 1957, OP, Box 6.
  91. Marilynn Preston, “Magical Odetta Sings of ‘Us’ and ‘Now’ in America,” Chicago Today, March 22, 1970, OP, Box 9; John Segraves, “‘Electric Odetta Sparkles Anew,” 1970, OP, Box 9.
  92. “Report on Jazz Festival in Newport,” Vermont Era, August 6, 1964, OP, Box 9.
  93. “Benjamin Franklin: Advocate of People’s Music,” Sing Out! 1 no. 1, May 1950. Shelly Romalis offers a thorough account of folk music’s appeal to early twentieth century radical communities in New York City’s Lower East Side through her biography of folksinger and labor activist Aunt Molly Jackson, who moved there in 1931 from her native Kentucky. See “‘Christmas Eve on the East Side:’ Aunt Molly Moves to New York City,” in Shelly Romalis, Pistol Packin’ Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). For a classic account of folk music’s connection to radical politics, and the American Communist Party in particular, see Richard A. Reuss and JoAnne C. Reuss, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957 (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2000). For a more recent account, see Ronald D. Cohen, Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016). For additional information on the Lomax and Seeger families, see Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music, First Edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Ronald Cohen, ed., Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997, First Edition (London: Routledge, 2003); Ann M. Pescatello, Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music, First Edition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992); Rachel Clare Donaldson, “I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity (Temple University Press, 2014); Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson, Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, First Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2014); David King Dunaway and Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Reprint Edition (New York: Villard, 2008).
  94. On Seeger’s membership in The Weavers, and his long solo career, see David King Dunaway and Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Reprint Edition (New York: Villard, 2008); Allan M. Winkler, “To Everything There Is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Pete Seeger, Rob Rosenthal, and Sam Rosenthal, Pete Seeger: In His Own Words (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012); Grace Elizabeth Hale, “‘My Political Beliefs Are Songs’: Pete Seeger in Cold War America,” in Kathleen Donohue, ed., Liberty and Justice for All? Rethinking Politics in Cold War America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); Ronald D. Cohen and James Capaldi, The Pete Seeger Reader (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  95. Judith E. Smith, Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical (University of Texas Press, 2014), 2, 86. See also Harry Belafonte and Michael Shnayerson, My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance (New York: Vintage, 2011).
  96. For example, in 1963 Baez notably refused to appear on Hootenanny, a television program featuring acts from folk musicians, because executives from its network sponsor, ABC, had blacklisted Seeger from performing on the program. For more information, see New York Post, March 21, 1963, clipping in Broadside, Late March, 1963, No. 23, available at https://singout.org/downloads/broadside/b023.pdf; “Notes,” Broadside, December 1967, No. 87, available at https://singout.org/downloads/broadside/b087.pdf.
  97. Ford, Liberated Threads, 31.
  98. Gillian Mitchell, The North American Folk Music Revival, 124.
  99. First Annual Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI, July 11-12, 1959, Program, OP, Box 6; Tonight with Belafonte, script, OP, Box 10.
  100. Don Royal, “Meet . . . Odetta . . . Thursday,” NEA, December 9, 1959, OP, Box 8.
  101. Chestyn Everette, “‘Tonight with Belafonte:’ Or, Odetta Saves the Day,” Tribune Entertainment, December 18, 1959. OP, Box 8.
  102. Ibid.
  103. Ibid.
  104. Tony Weitzel, “Odetta Gets a Startling Phone Call,” Chicago Daily News, December 18, 1959, OP, Box 8.
  105. Amherst Folklore Presents Odetta, featured on TV’s “An Evening with Belafonte,” concert poster, OP, Box 6.
  106. Harry Belafonte to Odetta, personal correspondence, December 16, 1959, OP, Box 5.
  107. Ibid.
  108. Ibid.
  109. The transcript of LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s interview with Odetta in I Got Thunder refers to her manager as “Albert Guzman.” Since Albert Grossman was the name of Odetta’s long-time manager, and since the author could locate no record of a manager by the name of Albert Guzman who worked with prominent folksingers in the mid-twentieth century, references to “Guzman” most likely refer to Grossman. Barnett, I Got Thunder, 186.
  110. Harry Belafonte to Odetta, personal correspondence, December 16, 1959, OP, Box 5.
  111. Ruth Feldstein, How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 54. Kindle Edition.
  112. Ibid.
  113. Ibid.
  114. Feldstein, How It Feels to be Free, 52, Kindle Edition; Harry Belafonte to Odetta, personal correspondence, December 16, 1959, OP, Box 5.
  115. Feldstein, How It Feels to be Free, 62, Kindle Edition; For work on the civil rights movement in a transnational context, see Ruth Feldstein, “Screening Antiapartheid: Miriam Makeba, ‘Come Back, Africa,’ and the Transnational Circulation of Black Culture and Politics,” Feminist Studies 39, no. 1 (2013): 12–39; Pam Brooks, “Crossing Borders: A Black Feminist Approach to Researching the Comparative Histories of Black Women’s Resistance in the U.S. South and South Africa,” Safundi 4, no. 1(2003): 1–16; Y. G.-M. Lulat, United States Relations with South Africa: A Critical Overview from the Colonial Period to the Present (New Have: Yale University Press, 2008); Nicholas Grant, Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Leslie James, Decolonization from Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Nico Slate, ed., Black Power beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Nico Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Harvard University Press, 2012).
  116. Amsac Festival, Lagos, Nigeria, December 18–19, 1961, American Society of African Culture, concert program, OP, Box 8.
  117. Ibid.
  118. Visionary Project, “Odetta Speaks About Her Life As An Activist,” 2008, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXVjM_4XHIE.
  119. Ibid.
  120. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson, Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Signet, 2000), 32.
  121. “Odetta Links to Folk Song, History,” 1965, OP, Box 9.
  122. Ben Page interview transcript, October 16, year unknown, OP, Box 2.
  123. “Odetta Will Sing for Local NAACP,” The Detroit Courier, March 14, 1961, OP, Box 8.
  124. “New Folk Star Sings Here May 17,” The Pittsburgh Courier, May 10, 1956, OP, Box 8.
  125. Mary Carpenter, Staff Member, Young Christian Students, to Odetta, April 29, 1960, OP, Box 11.
  126. The Artists Committee for Freedom and Justice, advertisement draft, OP, Box 2.
  127. Mick Skidmore, “Odetta ‘Powerful’ at First Parish Church,” The Patriot Ledger, April 30, 1984, OP, Box 6.
  128. King, Why We Can’t Wait, 30; Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage, 2010), 250. See also James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Orbis Books, 2012).
  129. Joan Barthel, “Odetta Speaks through Her Songs,” clipping, newspaper unknown, OP, Box 9.
  130. Ibid.
  131. See Beth Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945, New Edition (Chapel Hill, N.C: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), who distinguishes between an “old guard” who dominated the NAACP through the Depression era and the Second World War, and the rising influence of a “new crowd” who advocated for mass demonstrations.
  132. Ibid.
  133. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2014), 9, 17; See section five, “Performing a Politics of Respectability,” for additional information on Odetta’s approach to wealth and folk cultural production as high art–her personal concept of respectability politics.
  134. Mattie Kennedy, “Odetta the Teacher–An Interpretive Singer,” College Times, August 27, 1971, OP, Box 9.
  135. Ibid.
  136. Ibid.
  137. Mildred Levinstone, “Odetta,” Kazuko Hillyer International, Inc., promotional materials, OP, Box 1.
  138. Marilynn Preston, “Magical Odetta Sings of ‘Us’ and Now’ in America,” Chicago Today, March 22, 1970, OP, Box 9.
  139. bell hooks, Black Looks, 17.
  140. T.M. Collins, “Odetta: I’ve Never Chopped Cotton,” Moving Line, OP, Box 9.
  141. Ibid.
  142. Odetta Felious Gordon, “Communication,” handwritten essay, OP, Box 2.
  143. T.M. Collins, “Odetta: I’ve Never Chopped Cotton,” Moving Line, OP, Box 2.
  144. Ford, Liberated Threads, 32.
  145. Ibid., 30.
  146. Howard Jay Rubin, “The Magic and the Power: An Interview with Odetta,” The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, no. 109, OP, Box 2.; Mildred Levinstone, “Odetta,” Kazuko Hillyer International, Inc., promotional materials, OP, Box 1.
  147. Jacqueline Trescott, “Up from the ‘60s, Odetta Finds a Song: The Private Blues of the Folksinger,” Washington Post, January 16, 1980, OP, Box 1.
  148. Maggie Maurice, “Odetta: Folk Queen Flies North for Winter,” The Burlington Free Press, January 8, 1987, OP, Box 6.
  149. Leroy F. Aarons, “Odetta Comes Out of Her Cocoon,” The Washington Post, September 3, 1966, OP, Box 9.
  150. Ford, Liberated Threads, 32.
  151. Ford, Liberated Threads, 33; Robbin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 162.
  152. Ford, Liberated Threads, 32.
  153. Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Penguin, 2011), 45; See Kelley, “The Riddle of the Zoot,” in Race Rebels, 161–181.
  154. Marable, Malcolm X, 78; For an exploration into the religious motivations for the appearance aesthetics of members of the NOI, see Edward E. Curtis IV, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975, New Edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006). On African-inspired beauty trends in the late civil rights movement, particularly among members of the Black Panthers, see William L. Van Deburg, New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). On the development of a pan-African fashion revival, see Tanisha Ford, Liberated Threads; Jean Allman, ed., Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); Helen Jennings, New African Fashion (München: Prestel, 2011); Suzanne Gott and Kristyne Loughran, ed., Contemporary African Fashion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).
  155. T.M. Collins, “Odetta: I’ve Never Chopped Cotton,” Moving Line, OP, Box 2.
  156. “Folk Singer Odetta to Marry Concert Coordinator,” Jet, May 7, 1959, Johnson Publishing Company, Vol. 16, no. 2, accessed via Google Books.
  157. Judy Collins, Singing Lessons, 101–102.
  158. “Didn’t Marry Young White Australian, Says Odetta,” Jet, September 14, 1987, Johnson Publishing Company, Vol. 22, no. 23, accessed via Google Books.
  159. Maggie Maurice, “Odetta: Folk Queen Flies North for Winter,” The Burlington Free Press, January 8, 1987, OP, Box 6.
  160. Maggie Maurice, “Odetta: Folk Queen Flies North for Winter,” The Burlington Free Press, January 8, 1987, OP, Box 6.
  161. Sheila Whiteley, Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity (New York: Routledge, 2000), 1.
  162. Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 84–85.
  163. Sheila Whiteley, Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity (London ; New York: Routledge, 2000), 1.
  164. Ibid., 17.
  165. Brother Norman, “Odetta–What Are You Doing in Tokyo?,” Our Kind of People, newspaper clipping, 1970s, OP, Box 8.
  166. “National Women’s Music Festival,” June 3–5, 1983, advertisement, OP, Box 7; “NWSA ’86: Women Working for Change: Health, Cultures, Societies,” June 11–15, 1986, program, OP, Box 7; “The Association of Women’s Music and Culture Presents: The Challenge of Growth in the ‘80s,” Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, May 28–31, 1987, OP, Box 7; “Roadwork Presents,” correspondence, OP, Box 6.
  167. Pamela Sommers, “Sisterfire: A World of Women,” Washington Post, June 24, 1985, OP, Box 6; Leslie Berman, “Sisterfire ’84: The Gender Gap,” The Village Voice, July 10, 1984; Susan Wilson, “Sisterfire Festival Unites 3,000,” The Boston Globe, June 29, 1982, OP, Box 7.
  168. “Roadwork Presents,” correspondence, OP, Box 6.
  169. Blair Stonechild, Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way (Brighton, Mass.: Fifth House, 2012), 163; Joan Baez, And A Voice to Sing With: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 185.
  170. “The Fiftieth Anniversary Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Dinner with the President,” January 31, 1963, program, cover page, OP, Box 8.
  171. “The Fiftieth Anniversary Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Dinner with the President,” January 31, 1963, program, p. 7, OP, Box 8; Judy Collins, Singing Lessons, 119–120.
  172. Albert Grossman to Mary Carpenter, Young Christian Students, May 18, 1960, personal correspondence, OP, Box 12; William Morris Agency, charge to Syracuse University in the amount of $1,250.00 for an evening with Odetta, February 2, 1962, OP, Box 5.
  173. David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, Tenth Anniversary Edition (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 86.
  174. “Joan Baez | The Concert Database,” accessed June 22, 2017, available at http://theconcertdatabase.com/concerts/joan-baez-18.
  175. Beverley Wilson, “Odetta–A Songful Teacher in a ‘Sad, Mixed-Up World,’” The Miami Herald, October 28, 1965, OP, Box 9.
  176. Ibid.
  177. Hale, A Nation of Outsiders, 3.
  178. Ibid.
  179. Joan Barthel, “Odetta Speaks through Her Songs,” clipping, newspaper unknown, OP, Box 9.
  180. William G. Roy, “Aesthetic Identity, Race and American Folk Music,” Qualitative Sociology 25, no. 3 (2002): 459. See also William G. Roy, Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States (Princeton University Press, 2010).
  181. Kevin Gaines has explored the long roots of “respectability” and its crucial role in identity formation among African-American communities since the late nineteenth century in Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century. It originates from the ideology of racial uplift which members of the black middle class used to distinguish a “better class” of blacks capable of “race progress” even as they lived and worked within a wider racial formation which asserted the biological, essential, and immutable inferiority of African-Americans. Middle class advocates of racial uplift, operating under Eurocentric terms of engagement, believed that economic and moral improvement among African-Americans would enhance black status in the eyes of the dominant white society. The concept of racial uplift was used to resolve the profound cultural alienation of middle class African-Americans who struggled under a condition of “double consciousness,” according to W.E.B. DuBois, as they sought out an ideology of blackness which broke free of white assertions of black inferiority as they reconciled identities as black and American. Even so, their emphasis on an upwardly mobile middle class continued to embrace a logic motivated by white racism.

    Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920, has considered middle class ideologies of blackness as they applied to black women in the twentieth century. She has applied her notion of “the politics of respectability” to middle class black women who developed a “national constituency” in which they “asserted agency in the construction and representation of themselves” not as inherently immoral and immature, as intersecting racial and gender ideologies suggested, but as worthy of both protection and respect. When Odetta presented herself as a wealthy and high-status performer, she was chafing against not only persistent beliefs in the American postwar era of black inferiority, but of a sentiment among folk performers that in order to make meaningful political statements, performers–many of whom came from economically privileged backgrounds–needed to embrace material scarcity. Odetta, on the other hand, appears to be advancing the sentiment that wealth acquisition was an accomplishment that could be displayed rather than rejected, especially for black Americans entering the middle class from impoverished rather than privileged backgrounds. For additional context on the “politics of respectability,” see Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, Second Edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920, Revised Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008); Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

  182. Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability, 30–31.
  183. David King Dunaway and Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Reprint Edition (New York: Villard, 2008), 305–7; Peter, Paul & Mary, “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” (1968), 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqY35SYsyfQ.
  184. Bill Gray, “Odetta Enthralls Listeners with Simple Folk Melodies,” January 16, 1974, OP, Box 9.
  185. R.C. Smith, “Odetta is Mellower, Still Sharp,” Durham Morning Herald, January 28, 1983, OP, Box 6.
  186. Bruce Sylvester, “The Power of Odetta,” Patriot Ledger, 1974, OP, Box 9.
  187. Mick Skidmore, “Odetta ‘Powerful’ at First Parish Church,” The Patriot Ledger, April 30, 1984, OP, Box 6.
  188. “‘Sanctuary:’ Southern Belle’s Troubles Told in Lurid Film Drama,” Denver Post, April 6, 1961, OP, Box 8.
  189. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: ‘Sanctuary,’ Adaptation of Faulkner Novels Has Premiere,” The Detroit Courier, February 22, 1961, OP, Box 8.
  190. “‘Sanctuary:’ Southern Belle’s Troubles Told in Lurid Film Drama,” Denver Post, April 6, 1961, OP, Box 8.
  191. LostCinemaChannel, Sanctuary (1961), Lee Remick, 2014, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMnzFM_Sq8s.
  192. Ibid.
  193. “‘Sanctuary:’ Southern Belle’s Troubles Told in Lurid Film Drama,” Denver Post, April 6, 1961, OP, Box 8.
  194. Ruth Feldstein, How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 159. Kindle Edition.
  195. Ruth Feldstein, How It Feels to Be Free, 160, Kindle Edition; The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 2014, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSDlm2LqAes&t=1675s.
  196. Stephanie Harrington, “Did ‘Jane Pittman’ Really Show Us Black History?,” New York Times, February 10, 1974, OP, Box 9.
  197. Ruth Feldstein, How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement, (Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 159. Kindle edition.
  198. Ibid.
  199. Stephanie Harrington, “Did ‘Jane Pittman’ Really Show Us Black History?,” New York Times, February 10, 1974, OP, Box 9.
  200. Ibid.
  201. Ibid.
  202. Ibid.
  203. Ruth Feldstein, How It Feels to Be Free, 22–25. Kindle Edition.
  204. Odetta, Lookin’ For A Home, Audio CD (M.C. Records, 2001).
  205. Odetta to Thomas Gorman, Trade Wind Productions, Inc., personal correspondence, OP, Box 10; Jacqueline Trescott, “Up from the ‘60s, Odetta Finds a Song: The Private Blues of the Folksinger,” Washington Post, January 16, 1980, OP, Box 1.
  206. Jacqueline Trescott, “Up from the ‘60s, Odetta Finds a Song: The Private Blues of the Folksinger,” Washington Post, January 16, 1980, OP, Box 1.
  207. John La Montaine, “Be Glad Then, America:” A Decent Entertainment from the Thirteen Colonies (Hollywood: Fredonia Press, 1976), front matter, OP, Box 6.
  208. Ibid.
  209. Ibid., 4–5.
  210. Ibid., 33.
  211. Mildred Levinstone, “Odetta,” Kazuko Hillyer International, Inc., promotional materials, OP, Box 1.
  212. Advertisement for Odetta, Hebrew, undated, OP, Box 8; Brother Norman, “Odetta–What Are You Doing in Tokyo?,” Our Kind of People, newspaper clipping, 1970s, OP, Box 8; Amsac Festival, Lagos, Nigeria, December 18–19, 1961, American Society of African Culture, concert program, OP, Box 8; Craig Stromme to Odetta, U.S. Information Service, Malaysia, December 13, 1985, personal correspondence, OP, Box 8; Norris D. Garnett to Odetta, U.S. Embassy, Vienna, personal correspondence, OP, Box 7; “Franco Fontana Presenta Odetta,” concert advertisement, 1975–76, OP, Box 8; Mildred Levinstone, “Odetta,” Kazuko Hillyer International, Inc., promotional materials, OP, Box 1; Peter Mudie, Ubu Films: Sydney Underground Movies, 1965-1970 (UNSW Press, 1997),71. Accessed via Google Books.
  213. Telegram, U.S. Foreign Service, American Embassy Vienna to Washington, D.C., June 1974, “Odetta Tour of USSR,” OP, Box 8.
  214. Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 92.
  215. Ibid., 35–36; 58.
  216. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World, 82; Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 61; 72–73.
  217. Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 248.
  218. Ibid.
  219. Telegram, U.S. Foreign Service, American Embassy Vienna to Washington, D.C., June 1974, “Odetta Tour of USSR,” OP, Box 8.
  220. Ibid.
  221. Ibid.
  222. Nancy Plon to Odetta, U.S. Embassy Vienna, May 7, 1974, personal correspondence, OP, Box 7.
  223. Judy Collins, Singing Lessons, 136–137; David King Dunaway, How Can I Keep from Singing?, 310.
  224. Christopher Wren, Special to The New York Times, “Odetta Rhythms Warm Soviet Listeners,” New York Times, June 23, 1974, sec. GN.
  225. Ibid.
  226. Jim Wise, “Odetta: ‘Folky-Pooh Vocalist Struts Her ‘Healing Stuff,’” Durham Morning Herald, September 21, 1984, “Roadwork Presents,” correspondence, OP, Box 6.
  227. Ibid.
  228. Ibid.
  229. Barnett, ed., I Got Thunder, 180.
  230. Judy Jackson, “Judy Meets Odetta,” Vermont College News, 1967, OP, Box 9.

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