The Singer Who MLK Called the Queen of American Folk Music

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Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Thea Singer was a force to be reckoned with in the American folk music scene. She was a prolific songwriter and singer, and her work captured the zeitgeist of her time. Martin Luther King Jr. even called her the “Queen of American Folk Music.”

The Life of Odetta

Odetta Holmes, or better known as Odetta, was an American singer, actress, guitarist, and songwriter, who was an important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 31, 1930, and passed away on December 2, 2008, at the age of 77. Throughout her life, she was an advocate for civil rights and social justice, which is evident in her music.

Her early life

Odetta Holmes, nicknamed the “Queen of American Folk Music”, was born in Birmingham, Alabama on December 31, 1930, though she later made her home in New York City. Her father was a railroad worker and her mother worked as a maid. The family moved to Los Angeles when Odetta was six years old in order to escape the racism they faced in the South.

Odetta began singing and playing the piano at an early age. When she was sixteen, she hitchhiked to San Francisco to join the growing bohemian community there. She began performing in coffeehouses and quickly became popular for her powerful voice and political songs.

In 1955, Odetta recorded her first album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. The album featured traditional folk songs as well as blues standards. It was a hit with both critics and audiences, and helped to launch Odetta’s career as a professional singer.

Her musical career

Odetta’s musical career spanned more than 50 years. She began her career as a classically trained pianist and later transitioned to folk music. She became an important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Her repertoire included traditional songs, blues, spirituals, and contemporary protest songs. Odetta was active in the Civil Rights Movement and gave many performances at benefit concerts for groundbreaking organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963, she performed at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where she sang two of her most famous songs, “Oh Freedom” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Odetta’s powerful voice and moving performances earned her the nickname “The Queen of American Folk Music.” In addition to her work as a musician, Odetta was also an outspoken advocate for equal rights and social justice. She continued to perform and speak out until her death in 2008.

Her later years

The 1960s were a difficult time for Odetta. She was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, and her career took a hit as a result. In 1963, she was arrested during a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama. The charges were later dropped, but the incident made her a target for FBI surveillance.

Odetta continued to perform and tour throughout the 1960s and 1970s, despite her declining popularity. In 1977, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy. The following year, she had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed.

Despite her health problems, Odetta continued to perform and tour into the early 2000s. She died of congestive heart failure on December 2, 2008, at the age of 77.

Odetta’s Influence on American Folk Music

Odetta was an influential figure in the American folk music scene during the 1950s and 1960s. She was a prominent voice in the Civil Rights Movement and was even called the “Queen of American Folk Music” by Martin Luther King Jr. Odetta’s music was a blend of traditional folk, blues, jazz, and gospel, and she was a master of both the guitar and banjo. Her powerful voice and mastery of the folk idiom made her a favorite of both folk music purists and those who were looking for a more contemporary sound.

Her unique style

Odetta’s unique style broke all the rules of “proper” singing, but it captured the pain, hope, and strength of the African-American experience. Her music inspired a generation of singer-songwriters, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Today, her influence can still be heard in the work of contemporary artists like Ani DiFranco and India Arie.

Her political activism

In addition to her musical talents, Odetta was also a prominent civil rights activist. She was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., and he once called her the “Queen of American Folk Music.” Odetta was outspoken in her support of the civil rights movement, and she used her music to raise awareness and inspire change. She performed at many political rallies and protests, including the 1963 March on Washington. Her participation in the civil rights movement helped to bring folk music to a wider audience and increase its popularity.

Her lasting legacy

More than fifty years after her passing, folk singer Odetta’s influence is still being felt in the music world. Often referred to as the “Queen of American Folk Music,” Odetta’s career spanned more than five decades and produced some of the most iconic folk songs of the twentieth century. In addition to her musical legacy, Odetta was also an active voice in the civil rights movement, using her platform to promote equality and social justice. Though she passed away in 2008, Odetta’s music and message continue to inspire new generations of American musicians.

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