The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement


FNN CELEBRATES BLACK HISTORY: FEB. 3, 2014.  Odetta Felious (also known by her stage name Odetta) was a folk musician, human and civil rights activist. She was known to be “The Voice of Civil Rights Movement”. Martin Luther King Jr. described Odetta as the “Queen of America’s folk music”.

For Odetta, folk music was a way for her to express experiences of racism toward Black people dating all the way back to the time of slavery. She brought work songs to a broader audience. These songs were sung by Black prisoners to express the horrible conditions they experienced in the South, while they were breaking rocks and picking cotton under the gun or whip from sunup to sundown. Odetta stated that these were liberation songs. Click on the picture above to listen to one of the work songs called “Take This Hammer”.

Odetta used her voice to inspire the struggle for social justice on many different platforms. She performed three songs, one of them included “Oh Freedom” at the 1963 March on Washington which brought about 250,000 people to Washington. She also marched along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.

Odetta was born in Alabama but grew up in Los Angeles. She studied music at Los Angeles City College. She started operatic training at the age of 13. Her mother thought that she was going to be the next Marian Anderson, one of the most celebrated black artists in the 20th century, but Odetta doubted that a large black woman would be asked to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her first professional gig was in musical theater in 1944 at the age of fourteen. She was an ensemble member for four years with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre, working with Elsa Lanchester. She later joined the national touring company of Finian’s Rainbow. While on tour with them she fell in with a group of composers of ballads in San Francisco. In 1950 she started concentrating on folk singing.

She got her name out there by playing around the United States. Odetta and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry for Fantasy Records in 1954. This duo was short lived.  A solo career later followed. She released her first album “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” in 1956.

Odetta was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts, in 1999. The U.S. Library of Congress awarded her with the Living Legend Award, in 2003.

Odetta wanted to sing at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 but unfortunately she died before she was able to. Her music will forever continue despite her physical death in 2008. I think you all should know about Odetta because she was a huge part of the civil rights movement.

Rhonea Long is a sophomore at Friendship Tech Prep Academy.