Odetta Gordon 1930-2008
From Odetta’s friend & manager Doug Yeager (12/03/08) :
Dear Family and Friends of Odetta,
The Grand Lady Odetta passed this evening at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. For more than a decade she fought the brave fight with chronic heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis in her lungs. The tribute concert in her honor on March 24, 2007 in Washington was supposed to be her swan song. At the time, her doctors said she could never leave her bed with oxygen for the remainder of her life. However, she got out of that bed and went on to give dozens of concerts around the world since that time. Just seven weeks ago, she performed before tens of thousands of fans at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park with Emily Lou Harris, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett and Wavy Gravy sitting mesmerized below her at the stage. Even though she had been getting weaker through the month she refused to cancel any of her upcoming concerts. However, on October 31st, after returning from concerts in Toronto she entered the hospital for tests. The next day she went into kidney failure. For the next three and one half weeks she battled on – at all times lucid, and determined to sing at Obama’s Inauguration. She went into cardiac arrest this evening. Her old heart just couldn’t fight any more. Her spirit, her will and her determination were greater than anyone I had ever known. I don’t think Joe Louis could have lasted one round with Odetta!
Eighteen months ago, Odetta and I were invited to the publisher’s office of the New York Times to give her oral history obituary. The arrangement with them was that we would not tell anyone about the oral history obituary, that they would be the first to publish her obituary, and that the readers’ could then view the oral obit Odetta gave by clicking on the New York Times website. Because I didn’t get back from the hospital after Odetta’s transition until 10:00 pm tonight and wasn’t able to speak to Tim Weiner, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who interviewed her until 10:45 pm, I don’t think it will be making the front page, but she has been given royal treatment.
May Odetta’s luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages. Though I know she will always be with me, I will be missing her. . .
Thanks to Toronto area journalist Dana Cook, who compiled this selection of published homages to the great “Lady O”:
From Joan Baez:
One night the Queen of Folk, Odetta, came to the club [The Gate of Horn]. I was a nervous wreck waiting to see her and was at the bar when I realized that she had arrived. I watched her for a minute from across the room. She was big as a mountain and black as night. Her skin looked like velvet. She wore massive earrings that dangled and swung and flashed, and her dress looked like a flowing embroidered tent. She had a split between her front teeth which showed all the time because her face, between expressions of worry, surprise, concern, and mock anger, would shift back into a smile big enough to match the rest of her. Her chin jutted out round and full of dimples when she laughed, and I thought she was the most dignified person I’d ever seen. To overcome the panic welling up in my chest, I went up to her and flat out did an imitation of her singing, “Another Man Done Gone.” She looked surprised and then pleased, and then she enveloped me in her great velvet arms. I felt about six years old, and my heart didn’t get back to normal for a week. (Chicago, 1959)
from And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir by Joan Baez (Summit Books, 1987)
* * *
From Bob Dylan:
… The area around the university [of Minnesota] was known as Dinkytown, which was kind of like a little Village, untypical from the rest of conventional Minneapolis. It was mostly filled with Victorian houses that were being used as student apartments…I found the local record store in the heart of Dinkytown. What I was looking for were folk music records and the first one I saw was Odetta on the Tradition label. I went into the listening booth to hear it. Odetta was great. I had never heard of her until then. She was a deep singer, powerful strumming and a hammering-on style of playing. I learned almost every song off the record right then and there, even borrowing the hammering-on style. (late 1950s)
from Chronicles: Volume One, by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
* * *
From Nina Simone:
…I’d walk around the Village, stopping off at Rienzi’s Coffee House on McDougal for iced coffee and coffee ice cream. I made friends with Odetta and I’d see her there and we’d sit and watch the world go by, talk, may be shop, but usually just relax. (New York, early 1960s)
from I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography, by Nina Simone (Ebury Press, 1991)
* * *
from Richie Havens:
Odetta was in the Village too. “The Queen of Folk Music,” Odetta became a lifelong friend and personal influence whose powerful, luxurious voice sang out on behalf of solo women performers when that was not the most popular thing to be. Odetta sang songs of the people and told wonderful stories. She was not just a singer, she was an educator, and the way she effortlessly performed that dual role made a strong impression on me. (New York, 1963)
from they can’t hide us anymore, by Richie Havens with Steve Davidowitz (Avon Books, 1999)