Folk singer Odetta, the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” died of heart disease in New York yesterday, December 2nd. She was 77. An influence to singers like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and countless more, “The Queen of American folk music,” as Martin Luther King Jr. dubbed her, was responsible for some of the biggest folk albums of the ’50s and ’60s, including 1963’s Grammy-nominated Odetta Sings Folk Songs. “She was my heroine,” Joan Baez tells Rolling Stone. “Her voice has so much power in it. You wouldn’t say she had a beautiful voice, you’d say she had a massive voice, totally grounded and rooted in things to do with the earth.”
In 1965, she recorded an album of Bob Dylan covers titled Odetta Sings Dylan. “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” Bob Dylan once said. “Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.” Over the course of her career, Odetta was nominated for three Grammys and was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1999. The Visionary Award from the Kennedy Center Honors came in 2004, followed by the Library of Congress’ Living Legend Award in 2005.
“Her voice could be a great and mighty roar or a sweet and delicate whisper that would not disturb the china,” counterculture legend Wavy Gravy says. “Or she could take out the whole china cabinet.” Despite failing health that confined her to a wheelchair in recent years, Odetta never stopped performing, with her last concert taking place October 4th at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Odetta reportedly also hoped to perform at Barack Obama’s inauguration in January. A memorial service is planned for next month.