US folk icon Odetta dies aged 77

Odetta in 2004
Odetta became a folk star in the 1950s

US folk singer Odetta, a civil rights campaigner and a major influence on Bob Dylan, has died at the age of 77.

Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, the classically-trained singer gave life to slave songs and folk tunes through her powerful voice.

Becoming a folk star in the 1950s, Odetta influenced Bob Dylan as well as Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez.

Despite being recently confined to a wheelchair, Odetta performed some 60 concerts in the last two years.

She died of heart disease on Tuesday at the Lennox Hill Hospital in New York. She had been admitted to the hospital some three weeks before suffering from kidney failure, said her manager Doug Yeager.

She made her name performing songs sung by ordinary people - housewives and working men, as well as prison songs and slave plantation "spirituals".

The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta
Bob Dylan in 1978

"What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs," Time magazine wrote in 1960. "To understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer."

Recording several albums, Odetta was best-known in the US for taking part in the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, where she sang O Freedom.

Odetta in the 1960s
Odetta took part in the 1963 March on Washington

In a 1978 interview, Bob Dylan said: "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta."

He added he found "just something vital and personal" when he first heard her, and that her music convinced him to sell his electric guitar and play an acoustic one instead.

First nominated for a Grammy in 1963, Odetta received two more nominations in the latter part of her career - one in 1999 and third in 2005.

In 1999, she was awarded a National Medal of the Arts. President Bill Clinton said her career showed "us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world".

Go to original BBC News article

NY Times Interview - The Last Word
Odetta became a force of the folk music revival in the 1950s. In the 1960s her renditions of spirituals and blues became part of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.

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