Odetta celebrated her 50th year in Show Business with the release of "Blues
Everywhere I Go," the 27th solo album of her career. She will be the
headliner at this year's Limestone City Blues Festival in Kingston August
24, 2000. With this recording, which has received a 2000 Grammy Award
Nomination in the Traditional Blues Album category and two W.C. Handy Award
nominations, Odetta pays homage to the great Blues women of the 20's and 30's.
Born in Alabama in 1930, she began her music career as one of the first
woman folk artists of the fifties. Along with her new album, a must have is
the "Odetta: Best of the Vanguard Years" collection, which includes a 1963
concert at Carnegie Hall with bassist Bill Lee (Spike's dad). She influenced
such artists as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and even Bob Dylan, who said, "I
learned all the songs on her first record word for word."
The Sixties witnessed Odetta as a major voice in America's Civil Rights
Movement. She marched with Martin Luther King, and performed for President
Kennedy on a nationally televised Civil Rights Program.
She has appeared on stage and screen, appearing at Stratford, and in the
1960 film "Sanctuary" starring with Lee Remick and Yves Montand.
She was the first recipient, in 1972,along with Marian Anderson and Paul
Robeson of the "Duke Ellington Fellowship Award."
In 1975 she hosted the Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival, and since then
has starred at virtually every other major festival around the world. She
has performed in plays by Toni Morrison, and has been a best friend of poet
Maya Angelou for over fifty years. She was recently honoured by President
Clinton on the Anniversary of her 50th year as an entertainer. She was
quoted once as saying, "Music is outside the path we walk every day. Ever
since primitive man we have been lifted by it, and we want to be lifted by
it. Even though we're heading for Mars and a push-button world, we still
have our basic emotions to deal with and that's where songs are coming
Odetta spoke to me by phone from her home in New York City.
DM: You have a very busy schedule this year.
ODETTA: (Laughing) Yes isn't that great. You sound like you are in a tunnel. I don't hear the crackling, which means I can concentrate on what your voice
is saying. You're recording. Yes. Good, good, good, good.
DM: Douglas Yaeger (her manager) sent me a ten-page information sheet on your background and I must say you have an amazing life and I really
appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.
ODETTA: May I say that that's a two way street. (I laugh) I really do. I really
do admire the fact that there is someone here who wants to get into whatever
we're going to get into. (She laughs)
DM: Thank you. I am a big fan of the Blues myself, and I really think that
it is great the way it is becoming more appreciated these days.
ODETTA: It really is growing in audience isn't it.
DM: Years ago when you came out with your first Blues album in the early
Sixties people were upset because you were moving away from the folk genre.
ODETTA: Those were our purest days. Ha ha. The people were pure. It had to be
folk or it had to be blues. We didn't know back then. We weren't told by the
people who researched the music, and they probably didn't recognize it
either. You know this is a country the US of separation. We separate each
other. I don't know if we do that of our own accord. We do that because
industry does that. Puts one against the other. In order to pay lower wages
for the other. Ok. And we didn't recognize back then that there was no way
to put up a wall between one music and another.
As people came into this country, we did not hang out with each other in our
churches, our mosques or our synagogues, in our homes, hovels or out on the
street. We didn't invite each other over to our own places, but the music.
Each of us heard each other's music. And as we heard there is no way you can
delete what you have heard out of your mind. Whether it be your parents
scolding you. Ok a sidebar here. I wonder if you can remember things your
parents told you and you thought it went in one ear and out the other ear.
And then years later recalled what they said. (We both laugh)
Well there was no way to separate music. Although that was the way we were
thinking because that was the way of our earning a living, and the people we
believed. So one thing has led into another. The cousins, the brothers and
sisters, each of the music areas coming out of the United States. Unless it
is a pure Appalachian song, or a pure Irish song with the fiddles and
whatever, when they got here honey they got mixed up with stuff, as a matter
of fact I was always curious as to an Englishman by the name of Child's.
Child's ballads, he collected there and then he came over to Appalachia and
he collected there similar songs. When you come from a country into another
country you bring what you learned there in country A. You bring country A
with you and then when you are chopping down the trees and building houses
and do whatever else you are going to build you have other experiences.
So you add and this is not a conscious thing. You add what your experience
is to what you come out of and from. So the people's experience here,
whether black or white or Mexican, now the originals here. they put there
experience together and the music is the result of what their experiences
have been. That is why the wide stroke of music that is coming out of United
States, and I have a feeling that the rest of the world is absolutely
fascinated with this cup of soup.
DM: This is your first album in fourteen years and you chose the Blues.
ODETTA: Because Mark Carpentieri at MC records came to us and he was interested
in doing a blues record and that was right up my alley.
DM: Even in your folk there is blues.
ODETTA: Did you hear what I was saying to you in the last ten minutes. It isn't
separated. All that folk stuff is a part of what the blues is.
DM: It is just what you lived.
ODETTA: No not what I lived. I am a historian, an observer; I have noticed things
and that is all that I can claim.
DM: But you have not just been observing, you've been doing and I have
noticed that you have been doing some great things as well. I have picked up
your Village Vanguard release and your voice is amazing. And the songs with
just you and Bill Lee's bass are special.
ODETTA: While we are talking I would like to just say here that one of the
greatest teachers that I have ever had was Alberta Hunter. She was
wonderful. As I was a youngster listening to old blues records I heard
energy, and I thought you get that energy by yelling hollering and
screaming. And if you compare those two records, the old blues record and
this new one. I have not done this yet, but one of these days I would like
to compare what I did when I was a younger one and what I did after I
learned lessons from Alberta Hunter. This little wee biddy lady at the age
of 84, as she was singing she didn't yell scream or holler. She just dug her
little feet into the floor. And pushed up from the bottom, the diaphragm,
and she focused, she told a story. And that's what I am working on. I
started working on this record, and as Seth Farber (piano player, producer)
and I go around I am working on trying not to over say anything, and keeping
away from yelling screaming and hollering.
DM: While you do that beautifully.
ODETTA: Thank you
DM: Have you met Alberta Hunter.
ODETTA: I did meet her, but it was like she was a teacher, and I never did sit
and talk with teachers. I thanked them and then sat off and listened. I did
so appreciate her, and she was quite gracious to me also. But I mostly
learned from watching her perform and listening to her perform.
DM: Your biography seems very linear. Were there times where you didn't
perform? It looks like you have been on the road for fifty years doing your
thing, and always had great audiences wherever you went. Were there hard
times as well?
ODETTA: I have always performed. I have been able to earn my living via love of
the music. I might have been 22 or 23 when I received unemployment checks
for two weeks. Outside of that I have been able to earn my living
ODETTA: It truly is. You know the world's greatest voice could be walking around
and trying to get someone to listen to them. It has an awful lot to do with
luck and timing.
DM: Luck and timing, but you went out there and did it.
ODETTA: Well, you have to have a little something. (Laughs) Maybe not just a
little something. Because I have heard an awful lot of people who ain't got
nothing honey, and they project it, and there is somebody putting money in
back of it. So, it's not a given.
DM: You have always seemed to stay true to your love, and what you wanted
ODETTA: Fortunately I have been politicized by Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson,
and I have been politicized by the people around the area of folk music. I
truly need to feel like I am useful. I know there are people who would like
to disconnect what our living is from politics, but there is just no way you
can do that. So I have been involved with being supportive of what I call
righteous causes and that keeps my feet on the ground.
DM: When you are coming to Kingston, who is coming with you.
ODETTA: Seth Farber. There is one concert I am bringing my guitar, and I don't
know if this is the one.
DM: You can bring your guitar. And if you need one we will find one for
ODETTA: Well thank you, I have been with Seth over a year now, and he is simply
DM: What are some of the other things you will be doing this summer.
ODETTA: Our next thing is the Cambridge Festival in England, and the Knitting
Factory in California
DM: There are many Odetta sites now on the Internet, is it possible to
e-mail you directly.
ODETTA: Honey I have just mastered the touch tone phone.
DM: The Kingston Blues Festival is looking forward to having you.
ODETTA: Are you going to come up to me and say hi.
DM: Certainly, and one last question. If you could wave your magic wand and
change anything in the world what would it be?
ODETTA: (Long pause) I think maybe I would wave the magic wand and take the
meanness, the callousness, and the need to hurt, along with the area of
greed. I think I would erase that out of the human person.
DM: I think the world would still survive if you did that, and it might be a
ODETTA: That is the only way we are going to survive. We can't survive on war. We
still have land mines and children are losing limbs, we are still having
embargoes where children can't get medicine or food. Oh, please we can't
survive on that.
DM: You have done so much for music breaking ground for women and women of
ODETTA: As an observer you see all that. But with a performer, or a writer, or a
poet or an architect they're on to the next thing. They're not looking back.
You are observing. And it would take you to make mention of what has come
before and the stuff that they have done. I am not back there. I am
wondering what I am going to do the day after tomorrow.
DM: Thank you very much, you are a beautiful person, and I look forward to
seeing you at the Kingston Blues Fest.
ODETTA: It takes a beautiful person to know one, and I enjoyed talking to you
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