A couple of days ago, I decided I wanted to listen to one of my Odetta albums. I hadn't heard her in a long time. Then, tonight on the Rachel Maddow Show, she happened to mention Odetta, as well. It was in the context of her having sung at Martin Luther King's March on Washington 50 years ago.
If you don't know Odetta, she was a joy. A powerful activist folk singer who often performed without any accompaniment because she didn't need any. You could almost argue that it got in the way. Usually, though, she had a guitar, though she'd performed any way that was needed.
I got lucky to see her once in concert, and in a very small environment, at the great Amazingrace Coffeehouse on the Northwestern University campus. The room was packed, and she just exploded her voice throughout the place. Talking, telling stories and singing with joy, agony and power.
(You can't write about Odetta without using the word "power" a lot. You can't overuse it.)
I was trying to figure out what recording of hers to play here, when I came across something I hadn't seen before.
I have a theory that one of my favorite ways to tell if an artist is truly brilliant is if they have it in them to be great at their worst, not just at their best.
Here is Odetta at probably her "worst." In comes from 2008. She's 78 years old, in a wheelchair, and months before her death.
This should show you how great Odetta was.
And why you can't overuse "power."
If you want to jump forward, she doesn't start her performance until about the 1:00 mark. And so you know, it doesn't last until 5:32. It ends about 4:35 -- it's just that there's a minute of cheering at the end. And it only stops because she leaves. One song and out. That's all she needed.
Y'know, I just decided to have a bonus. This isn't Odetta at her "best" either, or her prime. But it shows perhaps more.
On David Letterman's first show back after 9/11, he invited Odetta on as a performer. Here she is with the Boys Choir of Harlem. Together, they sing the spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine." And wash over the room with a powerful joy.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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