In a 2020 Rolling Stone interview, musicologist and classically trained vocalist Rhiannon Giddens observed that Black artists are being written out of folk and country music history, adding that "folk festivals were thinly-veiled attempts to recast (traditional folk and country) music as white mountain music, as part of a project to create a white ethnicity."
However, Black musicologists, musicians, and songwriters have claimed their space in the record bins and on festival stages. Yola wove gospel and 1970s glam influences into traditional country songwriting on her kaleidoscopic debut album Walk Through Fire; Kaia Kater's quicksilver banjo playing has limned traditional Appalachian and Caribbean folk songs, and Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard brought blues to a contemporary audience with her guitar heroics and raw songwriting. Many blues women like Tracy Chapman and late Sister Rosetta Tharpe have been cited as influential by up-and-coming artists. But as the country once again reckons with white supremacy, and as a new generation of Black artists finds traction in the Americana movement, perhaps it's time to revisit one of the most overlooked but deeply resonant pioneers of folk music: Odetta Holmes.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama on New Year's Eve, 1930, Odetta Holmes didn't start out as a folk singer. According to music Ian Zack, who published the first biography of the singer, Odetta: A life in music and protest in April of this year, Holmes' interest in music began when she and her family would listen to Saturday morning broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. This love of classical music eventually led her to join her high school's glee club and take singing lessons. Opportunities for Black classical singers were rare, however—even Odetta's hero, Marian Anderson, had to wait until 1955 to sing at the Met.
In later years, Odetta would put her classical training into perspective, noting that "I had swallowed this whole pill that society had given us: That if it was classical and from Europe it was legitimate." Eventually the singer transitioned from classical music and theater to folk singing and musicology, but her process and her skills from one medium were applicable to the next.
"She would challenge her interviewers who said, 'oh, you must have grown up with this music [blues & gospel],'" said Judith Smith, the author of Becoming Belafonte. "She would say to them, 'I learned this music because this is what I wanted to say.'"
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Odetta leaned into Black folkways as a way to sing the rage, trauma, love, and resiliency at the heart of the songs that Black folks created and clung to in order to survive. While touring with a revival of the musical Finian's Rainbow, Odetta attended a hootenanny with her friend Jo Mapes. That event would inspire her to learn guitar and start teaching herself songs from Carl Sandburg's American Songbag and different Library of Congress compilations.
Figures like Sandburg and Library of Congress audio archivist Alan Lomax had compiled wide-ranging songbooks and recordings, and many of Odetta's peers were performing an array of songs from different traditions and sources, like labor songs, Irish ballads, and selections from the Francis James Child anthologies.
Odetta similarly drew songs from diverse experiences of Black people. Work songs particularly resonated with her because "I could get my rocks off within those work songs and things without having to say 'I hate you and I hate me.' As a matter of fact, it was the area of the work songs and prison songs that helped heal me a great deal," the singer said in Denise Sullivan's Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-hop.
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Her searing renditions of songs like "Water Boy" and "Take This Hammer" served as a visceral corrective to what she and her peers had learned in school about the experiences of enslaved people. In the 33 1/3 book about her album, One Grain of Sand, historian Matthew Frye Jacobson quotes the singer, "You know, they told me in grammar school, as we were reading about slavery, that the slaves were happy and singing all the time. That was at a time when I felt—I think we all go through this—it couldn't be in the book if it weren't true. And I believed—I swallowed that thing and it damaged me; I still have scars from that."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s queen of folk
You can hear parallels between Odetta's approach and the struggles of Black artists in the contemporary Americana movement in the songs of folk and roots music supergroup Our Native Daughters, which Giddens formed in 2018. The instrumental track "Barbados" is bookended by Giddens reading two poems—abolitionist William Cowper's 1788 verse "Pity for Poor Africans" and a 21st-century update—in an arch voice, limning the horror of slave labor and the convenience of its products with an acidic sense of humor.
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Like Odetta's covers of chain-gang songs and work songs, this modernization of an 18th-century satire shows that we're not as far from our past as we would like to think. While genre-bending vocalist and bandleader Janelle Monae has never cited Odetta as an influence, her song "Hell You Talmbout" shares some spiritual and musical DNA with her predecessor's work. Over a spare drumbeat, Monae and her Wondaland Arts Society peers recite the names of those murdered by police brutality, punctuating their chants with the phrase "say his name!" or "say her name!" With the steady drumbeat, close-miked vocals, and the occasional cracks and imperfections in the performance, the song recalls Odetta's version of "Water Boy."
Zack doesn't point to one reason why a galvanizing talent like Odetta didn't have similar commercial success to the artists she influenced. Instead, he chronicles a series of short-term contracts from small record labels, little promotion, and indifferent management that hindered her ability to reach a wider audience. The trends shifted away from the interpretations of traditional folk songs she performed, as well as her mannered, declarative singing style and percussive guitar playing.
In August of 1963 Holmes played to the largest audience of her career at The Great March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech. The classically trained contralto stood before the crowd with the perfect posture and regal bearing of an opera singer. Playing her guitar like a drum, she sang her "Freedom Trilogy," a medley of spirituals she would play to end her nightclub sets.
Odetta would later describe her appearance at the March on Washington as "the greatest day of my life," and Dr. King himself would fete her as "the queen of folk music." While the full sets of other artists who performed that day—including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, both of whom cited her as an influence—exist in full, the only audio footage that exists of Odetta's performance is less than a minute of "I'm on My Way."
"When I got up to sing, I think all the film crew went to lunch because all the camera lights that were red before I got on went out … You know, that kind of hurt," she would later say.
In some ways her career mirrored the coverage she got for her appearance at the March on Washington; oft-discussed but little seen.
The issues she sang about are still, sadly, resonant today. As popular Black Americana artists and singer/songwriters make music that speaks to the current social and political unrest, many of them have looked to her as an influence. "She's the blueprint for activism in music in the United States," observes singer/songwriter Anjimile. "It's specifically because of her that I feel like I even have a voice to speak on political issues. It was through her music as well that as an 18, 19-year-old I began to realize that the personal is political."