Odetta advises fans to avoid distraction

Friday, March 26, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — They came to hear the voice and perhaps secure some advice.

After all, Odetta — the woman sitting before them as part of the First Amendment Center’s continuing First Amendment in Concert series — overcame considerable odds to become a significant influence for many musicians and listeners.

When facing people attempting to derail artistic and charitable missions, Odetta advised: “Don’t waste your time with what they are trying to do. They are trying to distract you.

“Some individual will come to you and offer you a problem to solve that is distracting you from what you need to do,” the renowned folk singer said. “When that happens you look deeply into their eyes, and you say — you might not even want to say this out loud — ‘Go back to God.’ You send the energy out … in order for you to continue your work.”

It didn’t seem to matter to many in the audience that Odetta didn’t perform during the hourlong program — she would do so later at the Bluebird Café. Some seemed content to simply gaze upon the woman whom entertainers ranging from Bob Dylan to Harry Belafonte to Elvis Presley have cited as a major influence.

“An awful lot of people are here today because they love the 45 words of the First Amendment,” said John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center. “But they are also here … because they love one word and that’s ‘Odetta.’ “

Noting the diverse, standing-room-only audience, which included Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, Seigenthaler said the fans showed up “because Odetta has some kind of voice.”

The voice, at least the folk music one, didn’t develop until her late teens, Odetta said. Her earliest musical interest centered on opera. In fact, she was studying to be an opera singer at Los Angeles City College when friends turned her on to the folk-music scene.

The music, Odetta said, made her realize that her image of blacks had been tainted. Hollywood and her schoolbooks offered few African-American role models as she grew up. Most, she said, were portrayed as “bucktooth buffoons or maids.”

“And I believed that to be true because it was in the books,” she said.

But she said singers Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and folk music made her realize that her culture had a long, proud history.

“I don’t think there is any person I have ever heard speak … that has not influenced me in some way,” Odetta said. “So there are many people who I am not calling but are a part of this thing that is sitting in front of you.”

Although open to crediting those who influenced her, she acted surprised that she had not only influenced other blacks but entertainers like Dylan, Presley and Joan Baez.

“We never know how we affect people we come into contact with. We cannot decide how it is we affect anybody,” she said. “It makes me feel wonderful when I feel that it is something I have done that makes them go on.”

And it can be difficult to continue in the music industry, Odetta said, particularly when executives constantly try to manipulate music to reach a broader audience. She recalled the efforts in the 1950s and ’60s to create “cutesy-putesy” groups to play watered-down versions of folk music so it would be acceptable for other listeners.

Today, music executives try to exert similar control over rap music, Odetta said. But instead of going for “cutesy-putesy,” they promote only the sexual double entendres and “cut you and shoot you” aspects of rap.

“It’s another area of keeping people in this country separate, by making you afraid of us,” she said.

Although she says she doesn’t listen to much rap, Odetta says it’s similar to the folk music she plays.

“It is coming out of a true anxiety and fear,” she said. “Many of these young people feel that they are going to be shot. Why? Because the police are 007s and feel they have a license to kill.”

Ken Paulson, the First Amendment Center’s executive director and co-moderator of the program, asked Odetta if she had experienced any censorship during her career.

She said she hadn’t but noted that quite a bit of internal censorship exists in the music industry as executives try to put the right sound and the right face on the music.

“If I were a white woman with the same things I have going on, I would be a bigger name than I am right now,” she said. “Do you hear what I said?”

But Odetta says she hasn’t allowed others to dictate her music. Most of the censorship now comes from herself.

“Songs that helped me the most then were the prison work songs, but some of them I can’t do anymore because those songs came out of pure unadulterated hate,” said Odetta, noting that she no longer performs her famous version of “John Henry.” “I remember what those songs felt like inside. I remember the feelings.”

Asked if music should be barred because it might be offensive to others, Odetta softly said, “No. No.

“Who has to decide what is offensive to who?” she said. “It might be ‘Mary had a little lamb.’ But who would object to that?”

Coverage of other First Amendment in Concert programs:

  • Steppenwolf’s Kay content with pushing messages 1.11.99
  • Kinky Friedman relishes job as ‘equal opportunity offender’ 10.12.98
  • Songwriter speaks, sings her mind 3.20.98