Cover image for Odetta : a life in music and protest
Odetta : a life in music and protest
Physical Description:
xi, 276 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (black and white) ; 24 cm.
Personal Subject:
The untold story of the woman whose music and afro inspired a generation, whose voice provided a soundtrack for the unfolding civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. --


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 782.42162 ZAC 0 1
Book 782.42162 ZAC 0 1

On Order



leader of the 1960s folk revival, Odetta is one of the most important singers of the last 100 years. Her music has influenced a huge number of artists over many decades, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins, Janis Joplin, the Kinks, Carly Simon, Jewel and, more recently, Rhiannon Giddens and Miley Cyrus.

But Odetta's importance extends far beyond music. Journalist Ian Zack follows Odetta from her beginnings in a deeply segregated Birmingham, Alabama to stardom in Los Angeles, where she helped the national heal after 9/11 through her music. It's hard to imagine the Civil Rights Movement without her opera-trained voice echoing at the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery march, and countless other rallies and protests, large and small. Odetta channeled her anger and shame into some the most powerful folk music the nation has ever heard. Through her lyrics and iconic persona, Odetta influenced lasting political, social, and cultural change.

Through interviews with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, and many more, Ian Zack brings Odetta back into the spotlight, reminding the world of the folk music that powered the Civil Rights Movement and continues to influence generations of musicians today.

Author Notes

Ian Zack has been a writer and editor for two decades. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes and Acoustic Guitar. Ian's award-winning first book, Say No to the Devil- The Life & Genius of Rev. Gary Davis was called "magisterial" by The Wall Street Journal .

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Zack (Say No to the Devil) celebrates the life of guitarist-vocalist-lyricist Odetta Holmes (1930--2008) in this fascinating first full-length biography of the musician. Odetta blended jazz, blues, country, and folk and influenced generations of musicians, including Joan Baez, Miley Cyrus, Bob Dylan, and Rhiannon Giddens. "Her soaring vocals and preternatural ability to inhabit the characters she sang about left her predominantly white audiences spellbound," Zack writes. He traces Odetta's life from her birthplace in Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles, where she received opera lessons at 13 and performed in musical and theatrical ensembles. By the mid-1950s, she was performing folk music in San Francisco and New York City nightclubs. Zack provides a complete discography of her seminal recordings, which includes Odetta Sings Ballads and Odetta at the Gate of Horn. Throughout this expertly researched biography, Zack shares testimonies of friends and fellow musicians, including Harry Belafonte: "the people who heard her became deeply committed to a force and something that she brought to the table that was so artful." A political activist, Odetta performed at the 1963 March on Washington, after which she would earn the moniker "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement." Odetta fans will delight in this timely biography. (Apr.)

Booklist Review

In the first in-depth biography of singer and civil rights icon Odetta, Zack offers a thoughtful portrait of an artist who never quite became as famous as she deserved to be, even though her music has influenced generations of musicians, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman to Rhiannon Giddens and even Miley Cyrus. Odetta did not fit into easily defined categories. She was an African American singer with an operatic voice and perfect diction who chose to sing folk songs associated with the civil rights movement. Seemingly simple gestures (to stop straightening her hair) took on great meaning during a time when Black pride had not yet achieved wider acceptance. Odetta celebrated Blackness before such recognition was mainstream even as she defied images of what constituted African American authenticity. She was naturally shy but overcame her diffidence to evoke a regal presence on stage while earning a reputation as an excellent finger-style guitarist; her approach became known as "the Odetta strum." Zack follows her career from Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York, chronicling how Odetta had to endure not only racism but also sexism. A much-needed biography of a crucial American artist and activist.WOMEN IN FOCUS

Kirkus Review

One of the leading voices of the mid-20th-century folk revival receives her biographical due.In a narrative that is both effectively researched and engagingly readable, Zack (Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis, 2015) is convincing in his argument that Odetta Holmes (1930-2008) has been underappreciated for too long, and he shows how and why her reign as the "Queen of Folk" was over before folk music hit its commercial peak. When folk music, progressive politics, and the civil rights movement were forging a unity of conviction in the 1950s, the young Odetta was clearly the right artist at the right time, with a moral fervor in her powerful lower register that could bring audiences to their knees. She wasn't threatening in the manner of ex-convict Lead Belly, and she hadn't suffered the blacklisting taint of Pete Seeger and other more overtly leftist singers. With her regal bearing and impressive vocal talents, Odetta proved inspirational to audiences and fellow artists alike. "When I first heard hermy knees went to jelly," said Joan Baez, who then rose to fame as younger white performers began to find the commercial success that had eclipsed anything Odetta had achievedand deserved. Their success made her bitter, and she felt that even her longtime manager, Albert Grossman, had betrayed her. Odetta charged that as the first client managed by the man who would become a legend with a stable including Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary, he "built his business on my back and I never benefited from it." Stronger management might well have nurtured her potential as an actress and helped her to navigate the sea changes of the 1970s through the end of the century, when her performing draw diminished and her recording career stalled. She also battled alcohol addiction and was often branded as difficult offstage. Regardless of her struggles, Zack brings her back into the spotlight.An effective biography that demonstrates Odetta's wide, deep legacy. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Releasing years of pent-up anger through her powerful voice, Odetta Holmes, known as "Odetta" (1930--2008), quickly became the "face of the civil rights movement," inspiring other folk legends such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and living on through the artists she continues to inspire. Drawing from Odetta's personal papers and countless interviews, Zack (Say No to the Devil) makes insightful parallels between the fight for civil rights and Odetta's songs, which became rousing anthems for protesters. He also reveals intimate details of Odetta's private life and relationships, such as her friendships with Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr. Superbly researched and beautifully organized, this is an excellent work of scholarship. Although Odetta never achieved the same level of fame as some of her folk music counterparts, she leaves behind a significant and enduring legacy; those unaware of her work will be compelled to learn more. VERDICT An illuminating, stirring biography of the extraordinary "Queen of American Folk."--Julie Whiteley, Stephenville, TX

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. xi
Prologue A Voice Like Thunderp. 1
Chapter 1 From Birmingham to Los Angelesp. 5
Chapter 2 Straightened My Back, Kinked My Hairp. 21
Chapter 3 The Toast of New Yorkp. 37
Chapter 4 Getting Politicalp. 50
Chapter 5 The Fuse Is Litp. 60
Chapter 6 TV Sensationp. 72
Chapter 7 That Lovely Odetta ... Playing a Murderessp. 89
Chapter 8 Enter Bob Dylanp. 107
Chapter 9 In the Heart of Jim Crowp. 121
Chapter 10 March Musicp. 132
Chapter 11 The Times They Are A-Changin'p. 153
Chapter 12 Freedom Gets Personalp. 176
Chapter 13 Hit or Missp. 190
Chapter 14 Blues Everywhere I Gop. 210
Epilogue "Who Will Be the Odetta of Now?"p. 225
Acknowledgmentsp. 229
Selected Discographyp. 232
Selected Bibliographyp. 234
Notesp. 238
Image Creditsp. 258
Indexp. 259