Odetta Holmes’s mother wanted her to sing like the great American opera singer Marian Anderson. Odetta was born in Alabama in 1930, 33 years after the birth of Anderson. She was also a contralto, comfortable at a young age with the solitude of arias and the cooperation of cantatas. To sing in the fêted style of Anderson, Odetta learned, was more than a program of achieving vocal purity. That grandeur she could reach — but she could not change the logistics of the time, like the racist ethics that prompted the Daughters of the Revolution to block her from singing at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall in 1939. “Look at Marian Anderson, my hero,” Odetta said in a 2006 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, when asked about her pivot. “It wasn’t until she was almost retired before they invited her to sing at the Met. I had taken the clues.”
Odetta took to folksinging and guitar in the late ’40s and performed until her death in 2008. In the beginning of her career, she sang on small stages in San Francisco that welcomed her whole body, not just her voice. She dropped her surname professionally, plainly calling herself Odetta. The singularity of her stage identity matched the intrinsic quality of her voice: expressive and strong, handling blues, classical, opera, and folk tones with subtle dexterity. A civil rights pioneer, Odetta sung the wretchedness and glory of patriotism by transfiguring the long archive of our essential folk songs. Out of the comely anonymity of spiritual torch songs like “Deep River,” Odetta found prestige. She inspired many contemporaneous singers, including Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and, of course, Bob Dylan.
I like to think of Odetta Sings Dylan, released in 1965, as an exchange between the two. The populist folk revivalism that took place in the ’50s and ’60s had artists communicating with each other, forming alliances that were as fraught and as intense as the state of America they lived in. On this album, the mutual tribute enhances both. Dylan’s songs are so often covered, so seldom transformed. Singing Dylan, Odetta sounded just like herself. She warms up his original pacifist sting on “Masters of War” and imbues “Blowin’ in the Wind” with true pomp. Odetta Sings Dylan consoles and riles, a sound we should all hear after this week, this month, this year. For all the hand-wringing over the supposed inviolability of literature sparked by Dylan’s Nobel Prize, the occasion might be better spent revisiting the words themselves. Interpreted by Odetta, “The line it is drawn / The curse it is cast” is a constant prophecy.