Ian Zack, Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest

“She was astonishingly strong…and wanted her songs to help this world get to be a better place.” Pete Seeger

“The Queen of American Folk Music.” Rev Martin Luther King Jr.

Ian Zack, Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest, Beacon Press

Odetta has left a deep legacy which has not often been recognized. She was a seminal figure in the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, a powerful voice in the civil rights movement, a black cultural icon and trendsetter, and a Grammy nominated artist late in life. An artistic tour de force, she has inspired a host of major artists including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jewel and Rhiannon Giddens. “I didn’t know I wanted to sing until I heard Odetta,” said Carly Simon. This brilliant biography by Ian Zack serves to highlight her art and influence and bring her to the attention of a new generation. It is comprehensive, sympathetic, and highly engaging.

Zack does not cover up Odetta’s flaws – her struggle along the way with alcohol, her failed relationships and her diva-esque behaviour behind the scenes at performances – but all this pales beside the remarkable story he tells of her rise from Jim Crow Alabama to stardom in San Francisco to success in New York, on television and internationally, to her active engagement in the struggle for black rights and on to her wilderness years before a final flourish in her late sixties. This saw two Grammy nominations and a presentation in 1999 by President Bill Clinton of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts.

Zack’s research has been extensive and all the detail is there, but this never gets in the way of his absorbing narrative. Running through the book are a number of important threads. Firstly, Odetta’s remarkable voice and performances. “Her voice,” says Zack, “was so impossibly huge that it seemed to rumble from the heavens.” She was a classically trained singer who had to overcome stage fright, and who, once she focused on folk music, was able to channel her experience as a black woman to combine her vocal power with a highly charged interpretative ability to create riveting and emotional performances.

Her voice set her apart throughout her life, even towards the end, when, enlisted by Mark Carpentieri of MC Records to record what would be a Grammy-nominated blues album, with her voice weathered by smoking and age, it was a remarkable and singular thing to hear. Go and listen to Blues Everywhere I Go and get a taste of Odetta’s formidable vocal power and range, in what is something of a classic blues album.

Secondly, Zack brings out Odetta’s commitment to the civil rights movement. Right from the beginning of her career in the 1950s, she refused to straighten her hair, as was the fashion for black women at the time, and set a trend for what would become known as the afro. She sang freedom songs in her performances in clubs and colleges, but also in civil rights protests and rallies. This included singing at the 1963 March on Washington before Rev Martin Luther King Jr.’s I had a dream speech. With utter determination, she poured her anger about black subjugation into songs about prisoners and chain gangs and eloquent stories of her people, inspiring a generation of young people, many of them white.

As the story unfolds, we see how the changing face of music in the 1960s and 70s overtook Odetta, who, despite a number of attempts was never able to sustain the success and fame she enjoyed during the folk era. Rock music became the music of young people rather than folk and despite an album of Dylan songs and a foray into the blues, Odetta’s music did not evolve. It’s likely that she was badly managed, in terms of musical direction, style, clothing and everything else. Zack says towards the end of the book, that “her friends will always wonder about unexploited opportunities and unfortunate decisions that side-lined Odetta for many years.”

She got little help from her long-time manager, Al Grossman, who largely built his business on Odetta, but it seems, was only interested in making money for himself. Odetta felt there was racism there too – that his “’racial bias stopped him doing anything for me’.” Zack doubts this was the case, but one wonders. The spectre of racism runs throughout the book, as it must, with a woman born in the1930s South, actively participating in the civil rights movement, becoming a leading light as a black woman in the folk movement and navigating a music industry dominated by white people.

That Odetta challenged the status quo so prominently is testimony to her determination and strength of mind. Zack has constructed for us a portrait of an immensely talented woman, deeply committed to her art, who was able to overcome numerous obstacles to success and who provided an uplift for African Americans at a time when it was desperately needed, along the way entertaining and inspiring people of different races in the United States and far beyond. It is a story that needed to be told and Ian Zack’s stylish prose does it the justice it deserves. It ought to be widely read.