Rosa Parks was her No. 1 fan. Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music. Odetta wearing a guitar high on her chest, she used that amazing instrument to bear witness to the pain and perseverance of her ancestors.
Born 1930 in Birmingham, Ala., on New Year's Eve. She was raised in Los Angeles. Odetta Holmes was schooled in opera from the age of 13. Like Harry Belafonte, Leon Bibb and Makeba, Odetta played the swanker nightclubs before the big (mostly white) folk-music surge kicked in later in the decade.
For Odetta and many other survivors of the civil rights movement, the election of Barack Obama as President signaled a fulfilling chapter in the struggle. As she sank toward death in New York City, Odetta had an Obama poster taped on the wall across from her bed. Hospitalized with kidney failure on Monday, she kept willing herself to live because, her manager Doug Yeager wrote on a fansite just before her death, "Odetta believes she is going to sing at Obama's Inauguration, and I believe that is the reason she is still alive." She sang of the past, and for the future. Come Jan. 20, her songs will be heard on the internal iTunes of the people she touched. Some voices can never be stilled.
Her death was on Dec. 2 in New York City at 77 from heart failure.