Odetta Aging With Power

July 9th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

The skinny Odetta who performed in Franklin Park last night was and was not the one I first met 43 years ago. Although, if pressed, I might admit that I’m not the same person I was in high school as well.Odetta at Franklin Park

Most living Americans didn’t see and hear the robust and zaftig version.They wouldn’t be surprised to see the apparently frail woman in her wheelchair on stage at the Elma Lewis Playhouse. Maybe 200 of us got the benefit.

She smiles almost incessantly and seems to enjoy thoroughly everything she does. She must take considerable pleasure knowing that she can still deliver vocally, making us wonder how that big voice comes out of that little woman.

Click the player below for a three-plus minute snatch from last night. It has the authentic detail of oblivious little kids and a bit of thunder in the background.

I heard her repeatedly at NYC folk clubs, concerts and festivals. My image of her froze though from meeting her up close when she performed at my  high school in 1965. That was the big Odetta — big in every way. She was broad-shouldered and heavy. She strummed and pounded a guitar, while she tapped and stomped her feet.

While she had a lot of vocal training, she was self-taught on guitar. She claims she only knows a few chords and varies them in many ways of timing and harmonics to fit a given tune. Whatever, it worked.

The wistful finding for us oldies is to see her with unmoving legs and unable to play a guitar. As she did when she performed at the end of 2006 at the MFA, she coped with the enthusiastic help of Seth Farber, musical director of Hairspray on piano.

The Globe review at the time is fairly accurate for last evening (except as befitting the season, no Christmas music). She performs similar tunes — blues, folk and a tiny taste of protest — everywhere. She’s still a pinko at the core, but doesn’t make a huge deal out of it. More important, she can shift from song to song and even within a tune from contralto to baritone. You get the feeling that, like Samson, she could bring the house down at will.

This was part of the free series on Tuesday nights there. There are famous and not-yet-famous performers for the rest of the summer under the aegis of the Franklin Park Coalition. Last night’s also got boosts from WUMB and the Boston Banner.

Another old reminiscer, City Councilor Charles Yancey, showed up to personalize the event two ways. He pulled out the whereas sheet from the Council, running on and on about Odetta’s accomplishments over the last 60 years. The punchline was that it was officially Odetta (all her last names) day in Boston yesterday. For the personal aspect, he said he brought his future wife to hear Odetta there 40 years ago and got married shortly after. He credited Odetta with the long-standing marriage.


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