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Odetta at the Ozark Folk Festival

Legendary folk singer and civil-rights activist Odetta headlines the 60th Ozark Folk Festival in Eureka Springs this weekend. KSMU's Randy Stewart spoke with her by phone last week.

RANDY: Odetta, the legendary folk singer, civil rights activist--the voice of the civil rights movement--is the headliner for the 60th annual Ozark Folk Festival in Eureka Springs, Arkansas on Friday October 12 at 8pm. I was privileged to speak with her by phone last week. Odetta will be 77 years old on December 31st of this year, but her voice and vocal technique have never failed her--largely, she says, because her mother insisted on classical vocal training for her as a young girl.

ODETTA: When we start singing, we've heard somebody--and that's before studying "right"--and we want to sort of make that sound. And so we do all kinds of crazy things with our throat. The technique is there, and it's still strong, because I'm still pulling from what my teachers passed on to me.

RANDY: What were your musical influences?

ODETTA: Paul Robeson was one for sure, and Marian Anderson--you know, she was like a queen to me. But even when I was young and bashful and shy, I didn't want to "be" anybody else. I had a teacher who was going to turn me into "another Marian Anderson." And I knew better than that, because I guess I figured God made one already! (laughs)

RANDY: And she didn't need the competition!

(Odetta laughs)

RANDY: In the late 1940s Odetta was cast in a touring production of "Finian's Rainbow" that played Los Angeles and San Francisco. There she encountered an old friend.

ODETTA: She and her husband, they were bohemians. And we would get together in their apartment and people would have guitars, singing songs that meant more to me than any of the classical songs I was singing. I do not put classical down at all, but these songs had to do with people struggling through whatever they had to struggle through. And I really went into it as a hobby.

RANDY: Hobby or not, by 1954 Odetta's own career in folk music really took off. She received rave reviews in the San Francisco "Chronicle" for an appearance at the Tin Angel, which caught the attention of Herbert Jacoby from the legendary Blue Angel folk music nightclub in New York.

ODETTA: I did know people would KILL to get into the Blue Angel (Randy laughs), but I mean, I still really am not in "show business!" (Odetta laughs heartily) I don't know an awful lot about it!

RANDY: In an interview with NPR two years ago, Odetta alluded to folk music as being an almost ideal outlet for the frustrations she felt as a young woman of color in this country. Odetta, is, of course, considered today the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.

(to Odetta) How did you get involved in the civil rights movement? Did they come to you, or did you go to them?

ODETTA: My stuff was based on folk music, the stories that came from the people, the music that was collected from them. I started learning about the history of us as a people in this country, through focusing on folk music and the prose that went along with it, and the stories, all right? And there was no way to say that I loathed and hated everybody--including myself. But I could get into a "character" and get all that energy out. As a matter of fact, I HID in my performances--"Odetta" wasn't there! (she chuckles)

RANDY: You sort of hid behind the persona.

ODETTA: Or became it.

RANDY: The very thing that attracted Odetta to folk music in the first place was the way it portrayed the struggles of everyday people--and protested against social injustice. Odetta admits that she has largely outgrown the anger and fire that fueled her early performances.

ODETTA: The anger and frustration that this little black girl experienced growing up in this country was addressed through the prison work songs etc. And I swear those things have healed me! And nobody knew I was talking about me--or IF I was talking about me or my experience. And as time has gone on, folk music has been my education. With that education, I changed and grew. And so, I'm still a "political" person; I still would not mind at all if the world were perfect and nobody could write a folk song, right? (she laughs) But we live in this country where we can still project to each other our frustrations and our joys, and--hopefully--grow together. It has changed because my experience through it has changed me.

RANDY: Basically what your saying is, there are certain songs that just don't really apply to who you are any more.

ODETTA: Oh, I'm glad you said that! "John Henry" was the first song that got up and walked out of my door [Odetta's ca.1954 recording of "John Henry" plays in the background], and I really sang that with some fury. ["John Henry" fades up] Well, it was a long time I DIDN'T do "John Henry." And then someone requested it and I started singing it... and I found I had to ACT it, and I felt as if I was cheating somebody! I wasn't LIVING it like I did before.

[music background crossfades into "Midnight Special"]

RANDY: But there are certainly still plenty of social issues--

ODETTA: Oh, yes! As I said before, I wouldn't mind if the world really came together and we didn't need any reason for folk songs.

RANDY: But we do.

ODETTA (laughing): Yes, we still do!