Even though we knew she was gravely ill, it was still a shock to hear of Odetta’s death. Her manager said she was convinced she would sing at Obama’s inauguration, and that’s what had kept her alive. But Tuesday night her indomitable spirit finally gave in, and we’re left to process what a loss that is.
It was cruelly ironic that we got the news on the heels of our Holiday Cheer for FUV celebration, because she was a special guest at last year’s concert. Who can forget the sight of her being wheeled onstage, looking so frail, then filling the room with that voice of the ages?
That’s the way it was the last few years. Once she got onstage, she seemed to inflate and command your attention with her magisterial presence. Every concert was like a history lesson - about music, civil rights, life. She was an earth mother, a teacher and a truth teller. And she never failed to get a standing ovation. It was as though each concert was a lifetime achievement award. And while she would bask in the applause, flashing that sparkling smile, she remained very humble about her place in history. When I asked her once about her legacy, she demurred, saying that was for others to decide. She saw her role as being useful, “putting back in the pot,” as she put it.
And she was just the same offstage as on. I had the privilege of spending a few hours with her and the great gospel singer Marie Knight last summer at the house of Mark Carpentieri (of M.C. Records). I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a prophet, soaking up her no-nonsense wisdom. You could never get her to offer an opinion on something she didn’t know, but if she did know, she’d tell you in no uncertain terms.
WFUV was blessed to have a long history with Odetta. In addition to her appearance at last year’s Holiday Cheer concert, she did not one, but two concertts for our members at Fordham’s Flom Auditorium. The first one was a double bill with Dr. John; the second, featuring special guests The Holmes Brothers, was recorded and released as the CD Gonna Let It Shine on M.C. Records. We’ll be rebroadcasting that on Thursday night, December 4 at 9 pm.
Vin Scelsa will rebroadcast his 2000 interview with her Saturday night, and Pete Fornatale will air his Christmas visit with Odetta on his Dec. 20 holiday show. I’ll play a few excerpts from my interviews with her this Sunday morning, then work on a longer tribute, including the comments of her many proteges (including Joan Baez and Janis Ian) on December 28, 3 days before what would’ve been her 78th birthday. First Miriam Makeba, now Odetta. Will we ever see their like again?