Her guitar wept and her voice soared

The passing of American singer, guitarist, songwriter and civil-rights activist Odetta reminds us of the power of music and the relevance of history, says Tara Brabazon

January 8, 2009

The death of Eartha Kitt was marked by obituaries noting her grace, sensuality, husky voice and political resistance to the Vietnam War. But another extraordinary American singer died in December who did not receive the same level of valedictory tributes.

Odetta influenced so many performers that contemporary popular music would be different without her voice, guitar playing, courage and defiant difference. She took Woody Guthrie’s political lyrics and meshed them with Leadbelly’s picking and Robert Johnson’s attacking bass line. Odetta was a phenomenal guitarist, one of the very few who made the instrument not only melodic but also percussive. She slapped the soundboard to generate both rhythm and surprise.

She demonstrated an awareness and control over the sound hole unseen and unheard in other guitarists. She cupped it, blocked it and fanned it. Odetta showed that the guitar could be an orchestra, not the gentle backing to a folk lyric. It could be a drum kit, double bass and guiro too.

Female instrumentalists have been undervalued in popular music history. It is easier to write about Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix than Carol Kaye and Mary Osborne. Kaye’s bass lines in The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman are landmarks in music history, yet her role as a session musician is undervalued in the research literature.

Invariably, the great female instrumentalists are obscured by the label “singer- songwriter”. Phoebe Snow, Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow and Tracy Chapman are disciplined and innovative guitarists whose skill and talent are rarely acclaimed because of their startling voices.

Similarly, the picking styles developed by Robert Johnson and Maybelle Carter would make an intriguing comparative research project. Johnson used the guitar’s bass strings to create an independent rhythm while playing a melody with the treble strings. Carter – and her “Carter Lick” – plucked the melody with the thumb and strummed the treble strings for rhythm.

Johnson has been validated by tributes, box-set retrospectives and iTunes profiles, but Carter’s influence is too often tethered to her more famous son-in-law, Johnny Cash.

Odetta is trapped in this history of popular music that validates women who play guitar as an accompaniment to singing, but her voice was so extraordinary that no instrument or instrumentalist could compete. After hearing her sing, it is hard to remember any other performer or sound. She defamiliarises the expectations of the human voice. Her versions of We shall Overcome and Midnight Special became folk standards.

Those of us who teach popular music spend most of the semester trying to convince students to stop analysing lyrics as if they were poetry. The rhythm, melody and grain of voice are ignored as they continue to focus on the far easier task of “reading” lyrics as if they were some form of popular literature. Odetta’s voice is a potent pedagogical device to help students hear why singing is about more than words. One hearing of Take this Hammer reveals new ways of using the human voice as a sound effect, rhythmic device and punctuation.

Another example I use with students to explore the dynamics of the singing voice is from the Tribute to Woody Guthrie concert. Odetta performed This Land is your Land with Arlo Guthrie. The son of the great man sang the first verse, exhibiting sweetness and soul. Odetta took the lead in the second verse. Her volume and force remind students how inadequate our scholarly protocols can be in understanding sonic media, tempering the passion, anger and snarl of the great voices in history to fit the stern predictabilities of semiotics or discourse analysis.

A year before her death, Odetta was asked about the reasons for her remarkable voice. “Slavery,” she replied. That answer explains why she performed and worked in the present, but carried a burden in her throat that did not slot into the calm expectations of a three-minute pop song or even an earnest folk ballad. It was an uncomfortable voice that raged, jolted, attacked and soothed.

Odetta mattered. She was popular music’s best sonic archivist of slavery. She was inspirational, historical and contemporary. Rosa Parks was once asked about her favourite music. She replied, “every song that Odetta sings”. Martin Luther King described her as “The Queen of Folk Singing”. Perhaps the greatest tribute came from a woman who was a friend through much of Odetta’s life, Maya Angelou: “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognise the time… This great artist sings the drama, and yes, the comedy of this human journey. The stations we’ve arrived at tardily and the destinations we have missed entirely. Her mouth was full of the glory of our aspirations. Thank you, Odetta, for continuing to define and enlighten our load.”

The wordplay and power of Angelou are a match for Odetta’s deep, disturbing vocals. Odetta did “enlighten” rather than lighten the load of citizens of colour, migrants, women and the lost. Consciousness does not make change, but shapes the conditions where change is possible.

Her death in December signalled some international tributes, but one of the most inappropriate and bizarre was a “comment” left at the Huffington Post website. It captures why we must encourage more listening and reading and fewer blogged comments that display little respect or knowledge for the great men and women who have battled and carried the wounds and scars of history.

“I don’t know which is sadder: the passing of someone who could be called a voice of the civil-rights movement or that I never heard of her before today. I read she might have performed at the inauguration. It’s a shame that she won’t, but I bet she lived a wonderful life. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Well, maybe, like most of us, there was something, which she might have laughed about right now. Anyway, I still don’t know who she is, but she must have been something to have been known by one name.”

I don’t know which is sadder: confirming ignorance about an important cultural figure or admitting that ignorance while making statements about a person’s life based on nothing except Web 2.0 confidence about the right to comment. As we move towards Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, ignorance of history and transgressive popular culture is not an option. We need to listen and think, rather than click and comment.

Odetta made sure that songs of slavery, work and inequality survive in the present. She showed that knowledge about the past does not have to be knowledge stuck in the past. It is our responsibility to keep listening, reading and thinking about examples of injustice that may be inconvenient or uncomfortable to hear and read, and safer to ignore. It has never been simpler to click away from ideas that do not fit into our bundle of interests, or to click forward on our iPods when songs do not suit our moods. Sometimes we should continue to listen rather than remain locked into a soundtrack of familiarity.

Popular culture has many roles in our teaching. It can be used as source material, recording in a journalistic manner the views of another time. It can capture the dominant views of war, terrorism and violence. But it can also offer an alternative refrain from those who struggle, who are defiant and different. For our students, Odetta is a woman who did not accept the narrative and life that had been written for her. She testified to the dangers of complicity and injustice. She walked with Martin Luther King and she kept singing after his assassination.

Odetta was loud. She was soulful. She mourned and wailed with loss and revival. Her version of We shall Overcome is filled with confidence and belief. We can follow that voice to a future that she will not share with us. Whether singing folk, gospel or work songs, she cared about history. She also made history. Following Odetta’s example, we must ensure that ignorance is never the fodder of confidence. Not knowing is never an excuse for not intervening in injustice.

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