Wednesday, December 3, 2008
When people hear me sing, they often like to tell me who I sound like. Given the range of very different suggestions, I usually assume that what they are telling me has more to do with them than it does with me (e.g., Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Tracy Chapman...not exactly birds of a feather vocally speaking). Consequently, I don't pay much attention to these comparisons; they don't make any emotional impact on me. There are two exceptions, singers I will admit I am deeply proud to be compared to: Ronnie Gilbert and Odetta.
As announced on the homepage of the New York Times' website, Odetta has died. There is a wonderful video of an interview with her as part of the Times' "Last Word" series. In the video she talks about how some of her own earliest connections with the songs of African-American workers, prisoners, and slaves were from the recordings of Alan Lomax. Reflecting on what she connected with in the music she says, "You're walking down life's road, society's foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can't get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life." Those who wrote and sang these songs insisted on life. At the interviewers request, she also talks about her personal wounds from the overt racism of the 1950s. "But what the wound caused --the fear, the hate...-- the music has healed," she says firmly, "I'm not saying I love everybody...but it helped me shuck that off. It helped me see myself, instead of waiting for somebody to look at me and say that I'm OK." Using singing to help people see themselves in this way is a big part of my work as a voice teacher.
I knew Odetta mostly from an LP my parents had. It introduced me to her "Freedom Trilogy." She sang this medley from the stage at the 1963 March on Washington and it includes "I'm On My Way" which I have adopted as a song to use in association with Passover and the Book of Exodus (and with any other occasion where I can get away with it). On the same album, if memory serves, is her wrenching rendition of the sea chanty "Santa Ana." Though my shipmates would likely never have guessed, my own chantying drew much more inspiration from her than from any sailor.
I saw Odetta twice. She came to Eastern Long Island to perform once when I was a kid. I remember the performance space being very small and feeling almost overwhelmed by how her voice and her presence filled it. I remember the performance as having happened at the Parish Art Museum in Southampton, but I'm not 100% sure. One thing I do remember for sure about that performance: She sang a song that was a setting of some of the words of Winnie the Pooh. After singing it, she laughed and said, "Words by A. A. Milne, music by O. Odetta."
The second time I saw her, I actually got to meet her. I was performing with Clearwater's Hudson River Sloopsingers at Symphony Space in Manhattan. I don't remember what the occasion was, but Odetta was also on the bill and after our set, I ran into her backstage. Completely struck by her strength and her grace, I stood in front of her awestruck and then managed to say, "You are a beautiful woman." She fixed me with her gaze and, with that voice that was simultaneously both crystal clear and connected with untold and complicated depths, she answered slowly: "Takes one to know one." I do wish that I could have known her more.
"Range" is the word that comes to mind, not only in describing Odetta's singing but in seeing how full a swath of the spectrum of human ways of being she embodied in that singing: easy fearlessness, both woundedness and healing, cutting intelligence, and playful, even flirtatious, humor. Everything she had, everything she was, poured through her voice. I think of Odetta as one of my musical/spiritual foremothers; I feel blessed to be in her lineage.
Click here for a recording of Odetta singing "Take This Hammer." My favorite verse: "If he asks you, was I running, tell him I was flying, boys, tell him I was flying."