The Queen of Folk Music: A Tribute to Singer Odetta

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


In this blog post, we pay tribute to the late, great singer Odetta, who was often referred to as the “Queen of Folk Music.”


Odetta Holmes, known to many simply as Odetta, was an American folk musician, actress, and human rights activist. Her musical repertoire consisted largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. She was an important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.Her best-known song is “This Little Light of Mine”, which she sang at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Odetta’s unique vocal style combined elements offolk, blues, jazz, and gospel. She was trained as a classical pianist but gave that up to pursue a career in singing. In 1954 she moved to New York City and began performing at clubs in Greenwich Village, where she was discovered by Harry Belafonte. He helped her secure a record deal with RCA Victor, and her first album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, was released in 1956. It was followed by eight more albums over the next decade.

In 1960 Odetta appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, which helped to raise her profile considerably. She began touring internationally and performing at major events such as the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963 she sang “This Little Light of Mine” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the song became one of her signature tunes.

Odetta’s 1964 concert at Carnegie Hall was recorded and released as an album; it is widely considered one of the finest live recordings ever made in the folk genre. In 1965 she appeared with Belafonte on his television show Sing Out!, which featured performers from the folk music scene. Throughout her career Odetta continued to perform both concerts and nightclub dates; she also occasionally acted in films and theater productions. In 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton.

Odetta continued to perform and record until shortly before her death from heart failure in late 2008; she was then aged 77. Her last album, Decades Apart, was recorded with younger folk singer Carrie Rodriguez and released posthumously in 2009

Early Life and Career

Odetta Holmes, best known as Odetta, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 31, 1930. Her father, Otto Holmes, was a carpenter and her mother, Flora, was a domestic worker. Odetta was exposed to music at an early age through the work songs her parents and other family members sang while they worked. From them, she learned the value of using music as a tool for social change.

Odetta’s early life

Odetta Holmes, better known as Odetta, was born on December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama. The youngest of eight children, she was raised by her mother after her father died when she was just a toddler. Growing up in a religious household, Odetta began singing gospel music in church at a young age. After graduating from high school, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music.

While in Los Angeles, Odetta met Larry Mohr, a folk music enthusiast who introduced her to the work of Woody Guthrie and other folk artists. Inspired by their music, she began performing folk songs herself. In 1954, she made her first professional recording, an album of traditional folk songs called Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. The album was a critical success, and Odetta was soon recognized as one of the leading figures in the American folk music revival movement.

Over the next few years, Odetta released a number of successful albums and became an influential figure in the civil rights movement. In 1963, she performed at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahalia Jackson, and Bob Dylan. Her stirring rendition of “O Freedom” is considered one of the highlights of the event.

Odetta’s career

Odetta’s career began in the mid-1950s when she was “discovered” by Harry Belafonte. Her first album, Odetta Sings Folk Songs, was released in 1956 to critical acclaim. That same year, she appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, which further boosted her career. In the early 1960s, Odetta toured with Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, introducing them to new audiences. During this time, she also released a number of successful albums, including Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1961) and At the Gate of Horn (1961).

In 1963, Odetta was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President John F. Kennedy in recognition of her contributions to American culture. She continued to perform and record throughout her career, although she never achieved the same level of commercial success as she did in the early 1960s. She died in 2008 at the age of 77.

Influence and Legacy

Odetta’s career spanned six decades, during which she influenced countless other artists with her music. Her work helped to shape the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s and she was a prominent voice in the civil rights movement. Odetta’s influence can still be felt today, and she is remembered as one of the most important folk musicians of her generation.

Odetta’s influence

Odetta’s interpretations of traditional American folk songs inspired many musicians, both during her lifetime and after her death. Her recordings of songs like “John Henry” and “Midnight Special” helped to keep folk music alive and popular, and her performances had a strong political message that inspired many people, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. After her death, Odetta’s music was praised by many famous musicians, including Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Her legacy continues to inspire singers and songwriters today.

Odetta’s legacy

Odetta’s legacy continues to influence folk music today. Her work has been celebrated by such artists as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Emmylou Harris. Odetta’s recordings are still available, and her concerts are much-sought-after events. She has won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.


In conclusion, Odetta was an influential figure in the American folk music scene. Her work inspired many other musicians and helped to shape the genre as we know it today. She will be remembered as a powerful singer and songwriter with a passion for social justice.

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