Odetta: When Folk Music meets Opera

I grew up listening to recordings of folk music. Ian and Sylvia, the Kingston Trio and Limelighters, the New Christie Minstrels; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez, Judy Collins. But the woman whose voice I remember hearing the most was Odetta.

Odetta Holmes (1930-2008), who sang as Odetta, trained as an opera singer. It showed in her voice, richer with far more depth and control than is generally associated with the 1950s-60s folk sound. She played guitar as well, and became active in the folk-music renaissance of the 1950s-60. Her version of “Lowlands” and “The Fox” are the two I recall the best of all the versions I’ve heard.

Odetta was also active in the civil rights movement, like so many in the folk scene. The music I listened to didn’t hammer the me over the head like some “folk” songs of the era. She let the voice and the songs tell the story of working folks, sailors, soldiers, and others.

“All my Trials” is gospel. MomRed has a very low alto voice, and sang this as a lullaby. Which may explain something about me . . .

As with many operatically trained musicians, and women who do R&B*, she had a second career in her later years. I’ve heard R&B described as one of the few areas where women become more in demand as they age – it takes mileage to sing the blues well. Odetta had taken care of her voice, and did well in the 1990s-early 2000s. She died of complications of heart problems in 2008. Given what happened to so many musicians of that era, her 78 years is very impressive.**

Odetta was a contralto before contraltos were cool. If you listen to a lot of female vocalists today, outside of symphonic metal, you find very few sopranos. The 1960s made alto cool, and Odetta is one of the coolest of the cool. Her control, diction, and tone color stood out, and still stand out.

*Rhythm and Blues

**Some years ago, Ted Nugent had a sad little op-ed in the Wall Street Journal bemoaning how many truly great musicians of his generation had been done in by drugs and booze, and wondering what might have been if Jimi Hendrix and others had continued to produce and grow musically.


5 thoughts on “Odetta: When Folk Music meets Opera

  1. I was privileged to see her in concert many years ago. For her encore, she led the audience (in Santa Fe’s hippest nightclub at the time!) in singing “Amazing Grace.” She called out the lyrics for the people who didn’t know them; for the second line of the hymn, she called out “that saved a SOUL like me – no wretches here!” Wonderful voice, and I remember being impressed by the dignity of her manner and bearing.

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