Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music. Odetta Holmes’ stage presence was regal enough: planted onstage like an oak tree no one would dare cut down, wearing a guitar high on her chest, she could suffuse Carnegie Hall with her powerful contralto as other vocalists might fill a phone booth. She used that amazing instrument to bear witness to the pain and perseverance of her ancestors. Some folks sing songs. Odetta testified.
Schooled in opera from age 13, Odetta toured in the musical Finian’s Rainbow before going solo in nightclubs and recording definitively scalding renditions of black folk songs in her 1956 Tradition LP Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. Her second album, the 1957 Odetta Live at the Gate of Horn, climaxes with “Take This Hammer,” a prison work song recorded by Leadbelly in 1942. Whacking her guitar more than strumming it, she digs into the despair of a chain-gang convict and extracts sonic gold: a shout, a sob, a desperate prayer. Here are audible wounds transformed into art, from a voice whose sonic and emotive power could raise the dead and reach the deaf.
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