Odetta Gordon

Odetta is without a doubt one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. Artists all over the world credit Odetta as the single most important influence in their musical career. Bob Dylan was inspired by Odetta. Her 1956 her album, "ODETTA Sings Ballads & Blues," inspired him to trade in his electric guitar for a Gibson acoustic. Odetta's most recent album "Blues Everywhere I Go" was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Ageless, her voice rang out with the passion of the 50's and 60's. Her music was one of the engines that helped drive the Civil Rights Movement. Early in her career, she was referred to as the "female Leadbelly." Pete Seeger said, "The first time I heard Odetta sing she sang 'Take This Hammer,' I went and told her how I wish Leadbelly was still alive so he could have heard her."

Words and Music by Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) 

"I don't want your cold iron shackles 
what man has done to man
Hurts my pride - hurts my pride
. . . and continues to do in one form or another" 

Odetta was born in Alabama and grew up in Los Angeles. She was training for a classical and operatic career until a visit to a San Francisco Bay coffee house featuring folk music awakened her interest. Following a long engagement at the Tin Angel, she was booked in New York at The Blue Angel. Odetta was embraced by the Greenwich Village folk community. She was soon to appear with Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and at Town Hall shows with Pete Seeger.

Odetta has recorded 27 albums and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 1999.

In 2005, Odetta broke her hip at age seventy-five and, wheelchair bound, she had to cancel all of her tours and concerts for the year. Odetta had to spend some time living in a nursing home where she could get the care and attention she needed. When Odetta reached out to us, we were able to get her a private room in the nursing home so she could continue to sing and rehearse. During the time spent in assisted living, the Jazz Foundation was able to pay her mortgage and maintenance for her when she was unable to do so, and because of this she was able to keep her home until the day she died.

Over the next several years we were able to help her in several ways: We acted as an advocate for her and reached out to various musicians' aid organizations on her behalf; we enrolled her in a prescription discount program through Medicaid; and we always visited her and brought her food when she would have to go to the hospital and let her know she was loved and needed. 

Odetta was a very proud woman. She made her own successes in this world and prided herself on her independence, fearlessness and self-reliance. We were able to help when she could no longer help herself by offering financial assistance to her in the form of well-paid gigs at our events. 

On December 3, 2008, one of the world's great voices was stilled. Odetta, who Martin Luther King, Jr. called "The Queen of American Folk Music," reigned for over thirty years with her rich voice and the honest, regal beauty of her presence. The folks at Ashe Records were about to begin promotion of their online-only release of Odetta's award-winning album Christmas Spirituals when they received the news. In tribute to Odetta, Ashe Records decided to dedicate all proceeds from sales of this album to her favorite charity, the Jazz Foundation of America. 

 Best said by Maya Angelou: "Thank you Odetta, for continuing to define and enlighten our load." We were very grateful that in the end we were able, in our own small way, to lighten hers. 


"When I broke my hip, the Jazz Foundation saved my home, made mortgage payments when I had to cancel my tours, and even visited me in the hospital. I don't know what I would have done without them."

— Odetta

Related Content

  • Email Sign-up
  • Sign up for JFA's mailing list and stay up-to-date on Jazz Foundation news and events.

Related Content

Related Content

Donate to the Jazz Foundation of America

Jazz Foundation of America · 322 West 48th Street, 6th Floor · New York, NY 10036 · (212)245-3999 · info@jazzfoundation.org
Privacy Policy/SiteCredits · Donate · Site by Constructive