New York’s Riverside Church held an hours-long celebration of the life of folk singer and civil rights pioneer Odetta Tuesday night. More than a thousand fans, family members and loved ones filed into the Gothic cathedral to take part in an evening of music and remembrance for the iconic singer who died at 77 in December. “The syncopation in her song was the human heartbeat in all of us,” remembered senior minister Rev. Brad Braxton. “Music makes an altar of our ears; Odetta was the high priestess.”
The evening included performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Josh White Jr., Steve Earle and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. Standout musical moments included Guy Davis’ performance of “Payday” — a traditional fingerpicked country blues in which he recalled visiting Odetta in the hospital — and Pete Seeger, still sturdy at 89, leading the entire congregation through the worksong “Take this Hammer.”
With more than 30 people scheduled to either speak or perform, the evening stretched towards the four-hour mark — a testament to the number of lives Odetta had touched with her songs and her outsized persona. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez remembered Odetta in video tributes; Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou delivered powerful eulogies to the woman who provided the soundrack to the civil rights movement, most notably in her performance of “Oh Freedom” at the 1963 March on Washington, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I’ve tried to tell the truth in my books, in the way I live my life,” said Angelou. “And much of that, the credit can be laid at the foot of that sweet black woman who could take the rafters off the windows.” In her last days, Odetta told friends the election of Barack Obama was a culmination of her life’s work. “She lit up the hospital,” her friend Wavy Gravy, the activist clown prince, told RS in December. “She was just joyful.”