January-February 2009

Odetta and Obama

By Ross Altman

One of America's great folk singers passed away last week, perhaps the only American folk singer known simply by her first name-Odetta. Known to millions as "the voice of the civil rights movement," she was trying her hardest to make it to next January 20, when she was scheduled to sing at Barack Obama's Inauguration. But her kidneys failed a month ago, when she was admitted to a hospital in New York for congestive heart failure, and dialysis could not spare her life long enough to fulfill her one last dream-to bring the voice that had inspired Bob Dylan to take up folk singing to the inauguration of the first black president in U.S. history. Whoever winds up taking her place will not be able to fill her shoes-let alone her breathtaking voice.

But this coming January 20, when, as Martin Luther King once intoned, "Justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream," will nonetheless signal the imminent arrival of yet another great anniversary, which began, let us say, four score and seven years ago...

It's the most famous opening of a speech ever given in America, and yet it was written on the back of a napkin on a train bound for a town only slightly bigger than a postage stamp in Western Pennsylvania, which became known for only one thing-the most deadly battle in a war filled with them, remembered now principally for the five minute statement made by the 16th president of the United States, given at the end of a five hour speech by the greatest orator of the day, Edward Everett Hale. The world little noted nor long remembered even one line of Hale's magnum opus, but Lincoln's brief remarks-passed down to us as The Gettysburg Address-have never gone out of print, and are now as well known as The Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln had no gifts as a speaker; his voice was once described as "high, and thin as a reed." But he is the greatest writer ever to have held the office of president, and is now as widely quoted as Shakespeare, in whom he was copiously well read.

This February 12, 2009, will mark the 200th anniversary of Honest Abe's birth-in a log cabin in Hodgenville, Illinois.

He died on April 15th, four days after the end of the war and just two months after his 56th birthday, gunned down at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C., by a vengeful actor and son of an acting family, John Wilkes Booth, who was as handsome as Lincoln was considered homely-so homely, in fact, that he eventually covered his face with a full beard to hide it from public opprobrium. Booth had a flowing mustache and an aquiline nose, and was by all accounts a dashing Southern gentleman.

His triumphant words as he gunned down the greatest president in American history were the Virginia State motto, Hic Semper Tyrannis, "Thus Always to Tyrants."

Because he freed the slaves he was considered a tyrant south of the Mason-Dixon line, and The Great Emancipator only north of the Ohio River, which demarcated the beginning of the free states, before Lincoln made them all free with the stroke of a pen on January 1, 1863, by signing the most important Executive Order in American history-the Emancipation Proclamation.

News didn't travel fast in those days, and this news in particular was in no hurry to get around-it took two and a half years before it reached Texas, and did not arrive until mid-June after the Civil War was over and Lincoln had already been assassinated. Some slaves found out around June 14; it reached others on June 15th; to some ears only on June 16th; and still others on June 17th; slave owners had no interest in letting their human chattel know they were now free, and so it only spread by word of mouth-reaching more on June 18th, and most of the rest by June 19th. To pick a single day to celebrate when the last slaves were finally informed of their freedom therefore proved difficult, and they decided to pick one day to represent all of them-and call it simply "Juneteenth," now observed on June 19th.

In reality it was only because the North won the Civil War that the slaves were freed at all-had Lincoln lost that war the South would still have maintained itself as a slave society, and we in the north might have missed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

As we enter the Bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth on February 12, 1809 (the same year Thomas Paine-the subject of last issue's essay on folk music and human rights-passed away), there is much to reflect on in terms of where we stand in relation to Lincoln's time. As I began by saying, we are about to inaugurate our nation's first African-American president in Barack Obama. Could it have come at the dawn of a more symbolically resonant year than the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of the president who freed the slaves? To put it more bluntly: had the 44th president been born during the lifetime of the 16th president, he would not only have had no chance of becoming president, in all likelihood he would have been born a slave himself.

There is nothing new under the sun? On January 20th we will witness something new-the culmination, if you will, of the proclamation that Abraham Lincoln signed that New Year's Day in 1863. History will circle back on itself, and in the reflection of the Great Emancipator we will see the hopeful visage of our first black president-whose warm regard for the life and example of Lincoln is already a dramatic departure from the previous eight years. Whereas Bush signaled his allegiance to the evangelical right wing of the Republican Party (only nominally the modern version of Lincoln's Republican Party) by asking, during his first debate, "What would Jesus Do?" as his personal "most important influence," Obama has made it clear that his singular moral exemplar would be answered by the question, "What would Lincoln do?"

As he has assembled his cabinet according to historian Doris Kern Goodwin's book on Lincoln-Team of Rivals-Obama has reached out to the very political leaders he just spent two years defeating to win his party's nomination in the first place, following Lincoln's prescription for energizing his decision-making with reference to counter points of view, not just those with whom he already agrees. Indeed, the most important position in his cabinet has now been filled by Hillary Clinton, who stayed with Obama right through the last primary, was passed over for vice president, and will now become the Secretary of State-arguably a more important position.

As we thus enter the bicentennial year of the president who made this auspicious year even possible, I return to that other related event, the passing of the folk singer who was scheduled to sing at Obama's inauguration, the voice of the civil rights movement that paved the way for his election. If Robert Frost was the poetic voice of JFK's presidency, whose presence at his inauguration ushered in "an era of poetry and power," and Maya Angelou was the poetic voice of Bill Clinton's presidency, whose presence at his inauguration signaled a return to Democratic Party roots, an interracial vision for its future, and an important initial glimpse of the leader some referred to as "the first black president," (now thankfully superseded by a real "first black president,") this great American folk singer would surely have brought tears to the eyes of those who had heard her sing at countless demonstrations for freedom and marches for justice, including the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

But sadly, or perhaps prophetically, Odetta passed away this week at the age of 77, before she could grace that last stage.

She was a large woman with an even larger voice, and yet she was not too big to sing at McCabe's Guitar Shop earlier this year, in the city she grew up in. She was a part of the Ash Grove folk music club in the 1960s, from which she became a nationally and internationally known folk and jazz artist that molded inextricably her thirst for great music with a passion for justice and civil rights.

Her folk songs and spirituals, as she described them, were all "liberation songs," Odetta said. "You're walking down life's road, society's foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can't get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life."

She insisted upon her life. It was also Odetta, I discovered some time back, who was early on instrumental in giving another wonderful folk singer his signature name and thus, at least in part, his life as well. I refer to none other than Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the "last of the Brooklyn Cowboys." His name came not from his itchy foot, but his unstoppable tongue: He came to visit Odetta one day in New York City, but she was upstairs taking a bath, so her mother entertained Jack until Odetta was properly dressed and ready for company. Except Jack did the entertaining, and talked her mother's ear off, with tales of trucks and ships and cowbiography and his signature stories that, as he once confided to me, had "a beginning, and a middle, but no end." By the time Odetta emerged, her mother leaned over and said, "Honey, that boy is the ramblingest boy I have ever seen." After Odetta turned it over a few times, the name stuck.

Odetta had one of the great guitars in folk music, a monster she once found at a pawn shop, which had a sound as huge as her own voice. It wasn't a Martin, and it wasn't a Gibson-or any other name brand. It helped to give her the instantly recognizable sound on her early recordings, but did not endure with her throughout her career-she eventually had to sell it to make ends meet. So enjoy those early album covers-her eyes closed, leaning back-not self-absorbed, but so absorbed in the song that she drew you into an almost mystical identification with the life stories of the African-American slaves who created them, and all carried out to the world in that oversize blue guitar that would have enveloped a lesser singer.

When Pete Seeger first heard her sing, it was in Los Angeles in 1950, at the same time he last heard Woody Guthrie sing. Odetta sang a Leadbelly song, Take This Hammer, and Pete was overwhelmed at the dynamism and power of her performance. He let her know that he was both inspired by her, and saddened too-that Leadbelly had died just six months before, and would not get to hear her sing his songs in a way that transcended even his own performance of them. What a gift to give a young singer just starting out-as Pete had encouraged so many others both before and after.

And then, ten years later, Bob Dylan heard Odetta's voice for the first time on record, and traded his electric guitar for a Gibson acoustic.

Links on a chain-Abe Lincoln and Barack Obama, yes-but also Leadbelly, and Woody, and Pete, and Ramblin' Jack, and Joan and Bob, and Odetta. Above all, think of her when you hear Obama being sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, and remember that folk music's still reigning queen would have ushered in this new era with a folk song, and a voice that helped to change America and make this day possible.

Bless her memory.


Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

  

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