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Ancestor Odetta: "The Queen of American Folk and Voice of the Civil Rights Music"

By Todd Banks

Presented by Omni Virtual University

When we think of the galvanizing forces of the Civil Rights movement, we typically envision the more well-known "iconic" figures such as Ancestors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks. We tend to forget that the people who engaged in this struggle were multi-faceted, so many of their contributions are often overlooked. Yet, not only was our Ancestor Odetta, a galvanizing force of the Civil Rights movement, she has often been called its "Voice."

The list of her professions was a reflection of those of the participants of the Movement: Singer, actress, guitarist, lyricist as well as civil and human rights activist. So, too, was her musical versatility: American folk, Blues, "Jazz" and Spirituals. During the 1950s and 1960s; she was the catalyst for an American Folk music revival and her considerable influence inspired a diverse portfolio of legendary artists including Harry Belafonte, Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and Janis Joplin - among others. In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bequeathed her the title of "The Queen of American Folk Music."

Odetta Holmes was born on December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama. She began studying classical music at the age of six and, at thirteen years of age, she began operatic training with world-renowned Ancerstor Marian Anderson as her inspiration. After graduating from high school, she attended Los Angeles City College where she was introduced to folk music and started to gravitate away from her dream of becoming a soprano.

In 1949, she made her professional debut in musical theatre and worked as an ensemble member in Hollywood before joining the national touring company of the musical "Finian's Rainbow". While on tour, Odetta became connected with a group of folk singers in San Francisco and began to focus her full-time attention on folk singing. She subsequently began performing in New York as well as in San Francisco and began to make a series of albums. She was introduced to a nationwide audience in 1959 when she appeared with Harry Belafonte in his Television special, "Tonight with Belafonte." She is best remembered for singing "Oh, Freedom!" at the 1963 "March on Washington."

Ancestor Odetta was also a renowned jazz and blues artist as well, releasing albums of those genres in the 1960s. In addition, she acted in several films, most notably in the 1974 drama, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," which starred the incomparable Ancestor Cicely Tyson. Although folk music had waned in popularity with the winding down of the movement in the 1960s, she continued to perform musically.

In September of 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts' National! Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honored with the "Visionary Award" at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In the 2005 documentary film, "No Direction Home" Director, Martin Scorcese highlighted Odetta's influence on Bob Dylan, the subject of the film, who is considered to be one of the greatest folk musicians of the 20th century. Dylan has been quoted as saying that after hearing Odetta for the first time in the early 1960s, he traded in his electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar.

While preparing this piece has made me more cognizant of the enormous influence she had on a wide array of significant musical artists, the part of her legacy that remains most salient to me is her title as "The Voice of the Movement"-- Not Mahalia Jackson, Not Aretha Franklin, or other more noted or popular artists -but Odetta Holmes!

The voice of Odetta Holmes energized the labor of the elders who paved the way- the Gatekeepers whose contributions have enhanced the quality of life for my generation and subsequent generations, thereafter. Odetta often referred to herself as a soldier in the army of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is obvious that the impact of her influence through her music is as significant as the marches.

Equally important, is the fact that the artists whom she elevated by virtue of her example, most of whom were pillars of the Civil Rights Movement, were empowered and made more relevant by her influence. This is what makes her legendary and an ancestor deserving of her "propers."

Ancestor Odetta Holmes joined the ancestors on December 2, 2008.


My wife, Dequria, had a profound influence on the subject of this writing. Her middle name, Odetta, was given to her by her parents in honor of Ms. Odetta Holmes. We have been together for a long time but I never endeavored to investigate her namesake until recently (even though ever since we have been together, she has repeatedly told me that she was named after a famous singer). After researching [Ancestor] Odetta Holmes and, given Dequiria's spirit, resilience and strength, I would agree that she was aptly named.

Recommended Viewing

Recommended Readings

The official bookstore of Omni Virtual University is When you click on titles that are linked below and make your book purchases, a portion of the proceeds from those sales go to support our work.

Odetta: The Queen of Folk. by Stephen Alcorn

Discography 🎶

Odetta: The Albums Collection (1954-62)

Odetta:Best of Odetta

Protest Songs: Stark Songs of Struggle and Strife (Various Artists including Leadbelly, Josh White, Joan Baez, Pete Steger)

The Very Best of Odetta

Odetta: Essential

Odetta- Odetta

Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues

Odetta Sings Dylan

Odetta:Odetta & The Blues

Odetta,:Blues Everywhere I Go

Odetta: Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays

Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sacred Fire: The QBR 100 Essential Black Books. by Max Rodriguez, Angela R. Rasbury, and Carol Taylor

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Sep 08, 2021

Odetta became popular with her folk singing in Chicago. This is not mentioned in the article


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