The first time I saw Odetta, she was in concert with Harry Belafonte. Mr. Belafonte was my 11th birthday present from my grandmother. It was a live concert. We had tickets, just me and Mother.
We both loved Mr. Belafonte. I don’t know when my grandmother discovered him, but I found him amid the grooves of a two record set titled “Harry Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall.” I played it over and over and over.
So when he came to town, of course my Grandmother and I went. It was a surprise for me. She even made me a new dress. My Grandmother made most of my clothing in those days. She was, after all a professional seamstress and I was her first grandchild.
I learned from the program that the late great Miriam Makeba was supposed to share the stage. But a man came on the stage and said that Ms. Makeba was ill and that the folk singer Odetta would fill in for her.
Well, I didn’t know who Odetta was, and I really didn’t care at that point. I was doing a grown up thing, sitting in a concert hall, my grandmother and me, like two specks in a glass of buttermilk, listening to real singers sing and perform for me and my grandmother. No need to pretend as we sat in her living room listening to a record. I was in heaven.
Odetta came to the stage. A big strong black woman with natural hair in a long brightly colored skirt with a guitar, which she held up high on her frame, almost under her chin. She reminded me of my other grandmother in stature only younger. She looked down, not at the audience, resting on her instrument. She was very still, never made eye contact. She didn’t have to. Her voice moved mountains within me. She sang folk songs, some I knew, some I didn’t. I loved them all.
The crowning grace was the song “A Hole in the Bucket” that she performed with Mr. Belafonte. It’s a funny song about a lazy man who didn’t want to do his chores. Odetta played the long suffering wife. That song in her voice, plays in my head to this day, word for word. I can sing it as if it was yesterday and I was eleven, at my first concert, at a music hall. Happy.
Rest Ms. Odetta, may you find peace.