Folk music pioneer Odetta dies at 77

Odetta, the Grammy-nominated folk singer who influenced a generation of folk singers, has died from heart failure in New York at the age of 77.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta was raised in Los Angeles and began opera training as a teen. She toured nationally in musical theater, and while in San Francisco became involved with the folk music movement of the 1950s.

She recorded several albums in the 1950’s, including Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956), At the Gate of Horn (1957) and her 1963 record, Odetta Sings Folk Songs was a best-selling folk album.

In a 1978, folk legend Bob Dylan told Playboy magazine that Odetta’s Ballads and Blues album was one of his key musical influences. He told the magazine that after he first heard her music, "Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar."

In her Time magazine obituary, Richard Corliss wrote, "If a line could be drawn from Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin, from Mahalia Jackson to Maria Callas, it would have to go through Odetta."

One of her most notable performances was at the August 1963 march on Washington, where she sang "I’m on My Way." Martin Luther King, Jr. later called her "the queen of American folk music."

In 1999, she was honored with the NEA National Medal of the Arts, and that same year garnered a Grammy nomination for Blues Everywhere I Go. She received yet another nomination in 2005 for her album Gonna Let It Shine.

Her contribution to folk music continued to be recognized in this decade. In 2007 the International Folk Alliance named her Traditional Folk Artist of the Year, and the World Folk Music Association hosted a tribute concert to Odetta with live performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and numerous others who had been influenced by her work.

That same year she toured behind Gonna’ Let It Shine and, despite health problems, in 2008 launched yet another national tour.

Though she enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished career in folk music, she told The Washington Post in 1983, "I’m not a real folksinger…I don’t mind people calling me that, but I’m a musical historian. I’m a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I’ve been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.”

Her humility, along with her music, will be greatly missed.