Odetta, folk music still go hand in hand after all these years

October 1, 1999

by Mark Guarino | Daily Herald Music Critic

Like Pete Seeger, Odetta is a synonym for American folk music.  She was born in the South but raised in Los Angeles, where she first studied classical singing. But it was further north in the Bay Area where she discovered folk music traditionals and, using singer/activist Paul Robeson as a role model, started a career that combined social concern with traditional music.

She is in her fiftieth year as a professional singer. After  playing all the world’s main stages, from Lincoln Center to the Montreux Jazz Festival, Odetta arrives at the Abbey Pub in Chicago Saturday. “Blues Everywhere I Go” ”(M.C. Records), her first studio album in 12 years, finds her mining the mellow blues of early century female singers Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace and Memphis Minnie.

The following is an edited transcript from a talk we had last  week.

Q: Do you have a favorite type of music to sing?

A: No, not necessarily. I’m too greedy to have a favorite, just a glutton.

There’s so much in each area thats absolutely delicious. If I  had to choose only one, it might as well be folk because that covers more areas than our life and living than any other music.

Q: Your singing style emulates early blues singers like Bessie Smith. What do you like about those singers?

A: Well, there’s an energy. And it’s not just “you left me.”  And (their music is) not just keeping up the stereotype that the only thing in life is humping and making love. And carrying on stereotypes that “I’ll cut you and I’ll shoot you.”I have nothing but contempt for so much of that. So I’m looking for songs that speak a little to the substance of who we are.

Q: If you think there’s stereotype found in blues music, where do you think it came from?

A: When these guys were in college, when they were collecting  the blues. They were the kids that were interested in double entendre and the prurient and also supplying their own view of what we as blacks were, which is sexist and cutting and shooting. I would like to hear the songs that these young kids decided not to put on the record because certainly there must have been some other things that these blues singers were doing but weren’t of interest to them. But they’ve always been here.

Q: Where do you suppose you can find them?

A: Hopefully as time goes on I’ll bring some out. You can go to the Library of Congress and just listen through and every once in a while a gem will come out.

Q: Your voice is more powerful when it’s quiet and delivers  each nuance.

A: I stay out of the way of my voice. Because the body knows  how to do it. Have you ever been around little kids and they open their mouth and they’re not singing, but it would carry through bagpipes? That’s because they leave the voice alone. They’re letting the voice go the way it should go. What we need to learn how to do when we’re adults, to stay out of the way of what the voice needs to do in order to reproduce that note or that idea you want to sing.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

A: My two heavy influences on me were Marion Anderson, a black  woman with a contralto voice, just a gorgeous voice. And Paul Robeson, a bass baritone, incredible voice. And through what he did in his life helped politicize me and made me know that it was not only possible but necessary to stand up to people to be responsible to my brothers and my sisters. And I feel useful doing that. I can be frivolous, but I don’t like to be thought of as frivolous.

Q: That activist stance is intrinsic to understanding folk music.

A: It’s people history. When we were going through history we  heard about the robber barons, politicians and judges, and they were glorified. They had our foot on our throat, they were stealing from us. And it kept us going. And so this music is a history of us as people and the strength of us to get through. And we’re still there, we’re still working on us, and they’re finding new ways to screw us.

Q: Do you mean the record industry?

A: No. I’m talking about the whole world. And they make up new words so we don’t get upset. If you were to say to me “you’re fired,” I’d get upset. But “downsizing,” now that’s not supposed to upset me so. It’s the way of putting blinders on us and we fall for that crud. We fall for it every time.

Q: What’s the lasting mark you want to make?

A: I would like to be of use and of service to us humankind.  To continue to sing. I’ll probably sing until I’m 97, 98, and then I’ll go onto the next level. Even if I have only two notes, I’ll croak them the best I can.

Q: I saw Pete Seeger last year. He had no voice left, so he just led sing-alongs.

A: The thing is, (the songs are) deeper than just the music.  It’s got some roots, it’s got some substance there. It’s not just a beautiful voice or a beautiful melody. You’ve got life represented here and I think it glorifies us as people. And that’s why it never really died out. The industry took the spotlight off of it, but it never really died out.

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