May 8, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ian Zack's Odetta is an engaging and important biography of a performer whose influence has spanned generations of musicians and activists.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"A thoughtful portrait of an artist who never quite became as famous as she deserved to be . . . A much needed biography of a crucial American artist and activist."
My book is the first in-depth biography of Odetta, who influenced just about every folk and folk rock performer from the 1950s to the 1970s and continues to inspire a younger generation today, including Rhiannon Giddens and Miley Cyrus. Odetta was born in 1930 and grew up in a nation that hadn’t done much to try to make a place for African Americans. Having endured segregation and other forms of racism in her young life, she considered herself as much an educator as an entertainer. She sang in a huge contralto that practically shook the walls. The black history she delivered to her mostly white audiences was being ignored in schools, with harmful effects on impressionable children of all races. And her brave decision to stop straightening her kinky hair and wear it in what would come to be known as an Afro set an example of black pride that reverberated across the 1960s and beyond. Her music inspired, not only in concert halls but at protest marches. Odetta’s story isn’t an easy, rags to riches tale. It’s more complicated than that. But it’s one that’s been left out of music histories. When she died in 2008, she left behind a rich archive of songs. These five are among those that made the biggest impression on me during the five years I spent researching Odetta’s story.
“The Freedom Trilogy” (Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues)
Here’s the song that became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement, heard during the March on Washington and the countless other protests, rallies and fundraisers at which Odetta lent her sterling voice and presence. Odetta took three old black spirituals—”Oh, Freedom,” “Come and Go With Me” and “I’m on My Way”–and combined them. That was her first stroke of genius. Her second was in the way she sang and played them on the acoustic guitar she’d nicknamed “Baby.” She starts with a mournful dirge for the days of slavery and slowly builds the tension until it breaks free into a rollicking hymn that celebrates the will of a people who won’t stop until they topple Jim Crow. The song is so powerful that it’s no wonder Joan Baez started singing it at age 16 and also performed it at the March on Washington, taking the stage shortly before the woman she called her “Black Angel.” When I first heard Odetta sing it, I could feel, in a shiver of excitement, the hopes and dreams of African Americans in the late 1950s.
“Take This Hammer” (Odetta at the Gate of Horn)
Odetta spent her first six years in Birmingham, Alabama, where the city’s segregation smacked her dignity in the gut (yes, even toddlers feel it, I learned, as Odetta’s story smacked me in the gut). Then the family moved to Los Angeles, where the racism was more subtle but no less crushing for a young black girl who knew what streets and neighborhoods she couldn’t enter even if there were no signs posted, and who read in her history textbooks that enslaved people were “singing and dancing” when they weren’t out in the fields. Odetta began singing work songs like “Take This Hammer” to “get my hate out,” she later said. That helps explain why “Take This Hammer” packs such a mighty wallop. Time chose it as one of the 100 “most extraordinary English-language recordings” of the 20th Century. It was one of ten chosen from the 1950s, alongside “Jailhouse Rock,” “Tutti Frutti” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” In this song, I heard a willfully determined black woman taking her own hammer to the constraints society placed on her.
“Poor Little Jesus” (Odetta Sings Christmas Spirituals)
Odetta found many ways to speak out—to educate as well as to perform. She included this traditional spiritual on two records that came out in 1959 and 1960, just as the civil rights movement was gathering real steam. In one verse, she slyly inserts a line that Jesus’s family “couldn’t find no hotel room”—a clear nod to black Americans, who had terrible trouble finding integrated accommodations when they traveled. She sang the line on the Ed Sullivan Show, where it was heard by millions. Seek out the version I first heard—on an album called My Eyes Have Seen—and you’ll hear Odetta letting out an ironic laugh after she sings the line. Sometimes, I listen over and over again to that little titter and I hear her strength, resignation, fortitude and humor all at once.
“Hole in the Bucket” (Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall)
Odetta is best known for her work songs, chain gang songs and black spirituals, but she had nothing against performing more lighthearted fare, including children’s songs, ballads and sea shanties. “Hole in the Bucket,” a duet with Harry Belafonte—one of the countless singers Odetta influenced—was first performed on Belafonte’s primetime television special in 1959 and was later released overseas as a single, where it became a hit. (Odetta’s contractual obligations sadly seem to have prevented its release in the U.S.) I will never forget spending a couple of hours with Belafonte, then 90, at his New York apartment as he reminisced about Odetta and all that she’d meant to him as an artist. “From the very beginning, she was an absolute marvel,” he told me. “She was such an imposing figure. She was very majestic and then ... she opened her mouth and out came that voice, which was unlike any other anybody had heard.”
“Movin’ It On” (Odetta Sings)
Odetta faced her share of challenges. After the folk revival ended, she recorded an excellent rock album, released in 1970, that was hailed by critics but sold poorly. She spent the next two decades in relative obscurity until her career got a second wind late in her life. This song, one of two originals from that overlooked rock album, seems apropos in light of all our struggles during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Any old way you can make, baby,” Odetta sings, “keep on movin’ it on!” Odetta had her share of ups and downs, but she never gave up, and I find in this song one of the clearest expressions of her hard earned grit and courage: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl.” Any old way, baby.
Ian Zack has been a writer and editor for two decades. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, and Acoustic Guitar. Ian's award-winning first book, Say No to the Devil: The Life & Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis, was called "magisterial" by the Wall Street Journal
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2018 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2015 - 2017) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Flash Dancers (authors pair original flash fiction with a song
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists