Odetta has gone home.
Artists that touch our hearts help us to see, and they speak for us our own mute truth. A spiritual breath of courage and grace breathes through them and upon us. Our base selves, slouching away from our humanity, stand up straight and recognize that our human being is found in righteous relationships, and we are translated into our more noble selves.
Odetta was born January 1, 1930, an Alabama baby, L.A. girl, growing into a beautiful black world woman. She possessed the gift of a magnificent voice. A teacher recognized her gift and wanted to train her for the classical concert stage. The teacher saw another Marian Anderson. Odetta, however, never wanted to be anyone other than herself. She found her authentic self when she found folk music. She answered her call to sing work hollers, prison songs, spirituals, blues, and the simple songs of plain folks. She wanted to take the rock hard hurting of this suffering world and sing it soft, to sing it into a healing.
In "The Last Word", a video interview on the New York Times Web site, Odetta speaks of the healing power of the music. "The folk songs were the anger, the venom, the hatred of myself and everybody else and everything else ... It was that area of the work songs and the prison songs that helped heal me." She respected the people who created this music to reaffirm their own worth. She worked hard to capture the emotion of the songs. The human truth of the songs was in her, but more than that, she was in the songs.
Her career coincided with the civil rights movement, and her art became an aspect of a two dimensional spirituality of worship and work. She called the civil rights struggle a communion. In that concept we see the liberation theology of God making God's presence known in struggle. It is in struggle that we encounter radical love, where we encounter Christ. Her art was worship work, and her singing breathed energy into the work of organizing and teaching and marching, thereby turning work into worship.
She called herself a teacher, preacher, propagandist. The LA Times quotes her saying: "Through these songs I learned about the history of black people in this country that the historians in school had not been willing to tell us about or had lied about." She wanted her art to set the record straight.
When asked what song she wanted to be remembered for, she sang the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" with an a cappella pathos that pounds our pride into useless dust. She was a true believer a long way from home. Odetta has gone home. But we hear her voice still singing, exhorting us to keep moving on, to fly, walk, crawl, vote our determination. And so we shall. In her honor.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.