Odetta, a singer whose voice resonated throughout the Civil Rights Movement, died on December 2nd in Manhattan at the age of 77. According to her manager, she had been hoping to perform at the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama. With a career that spanned decades, Odetta has influenced a generation of musicians. In fact, her solo debut album, Sings Ballads and Blues (1956), is cited by Bob Dylan as one of the reasons he switched to acoustic guitar.
Odetta was born December 31, 1930 in Birmingham, AL. In 1937, her family moved to Los Angeles and she began taking music lessons at the age of 13. Although she performed in musical theater after high school, her introduction to the West Coast folk music scene changed the direction of her career. She made quite a name for herself performing in clubs on the West Coast and in 1953, traveled to New York to perform at the famous Blue Angel folk club. In 1954, she recorded her first album, The Tin Angel, with Larry Mohr. During her most active decade, the 1960s, she released 16 albums and became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and performed at the 1963 March on Washington. She continued to record for decades, releasing her final album, Gonna Let It Shine, in 2005. This album received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Her storied career brought her several awards. In 1972, she received the Duke Ellington Fellowship Award along with Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Eubie Blake. During the 1980s, the National Music Council awarded her with the American Eagle Award. In 1999, she received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, the highest award given to artists by the United States Government.