In the fall of 1978 I was helping out with the logistics of a folk festival that the Folkway was putting on at Crotched Mountain ski area in Greenfield, New Hampshire. One of my assignments was to go to the Jack Daniels Motel in Peterborough and pick up one of the weekend’s headliners, Odetta. I knocked nervously on the door, As I expected, her presence was instantly intimidating (though she was perfectly polite), and I also realized that her ample physical presence would be somewhat intimating to the front seat of my little Datsun sedan. I took my place behind the wheel and by way of making conversation asked her how she was doing this day. She was silent for a short time and then said sternly, “My father died yesterday.” “I’m sorry,” I said, and then – “will you be able to sing today?” She practically glared at me (though I later learned Odetta’s glare could have a certain warmth to it) and said, “I have to sing today!”
Odetta fell in love with Peterborough, and I don’t recall if it was that year or the following, but she rented a house one winter and just hung out. She soon became a fixture at the Folkway, visiting often and performing occasionally. Others will remember better than I whether she engaged in many return visits, but I will never forget my initial encounter.
With Odetta’s passing on December 2, at the age of 77, there have been wonderful articles and remembrances. I was particularly struck to learn that she had hoped to sing at the inauguration of President Obama, though as numerous commentators have noted, she will still be there. Odetta was perhaps the epitome of folksingers who represented the call for “change.” When I remember her gaze, it was as if she was looking not at where we were, but where we were going, or more aptly, where we could go. Of course we’re not there yet, but Odetta’s long musical career helped propel humanity in the right direction, and we are grateful for her life.
It is curious that purveyors of folk culture are involved simultaneously in the preservation and disruption of tradition. Those of us who came of age under the influence of people like Odetta and her contemporaries (Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Joan Baez, just to name a few) came to understand the words “folk” and “protest” to be almost synonymous. Odetta’s music was strongly rooted in tradition, yet she used it to shake off the chains of convention. Her music allowed us to rise and move forward, not so much out of defiance, but rather, finding a higher road.
A few months ago in concert in Albany (wheelchair bound, but still intimidating of spirit) she prefaced her singing of “This Little Light of Mine” with a quote from author Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are we not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Let us celebrate the power of light as we approach the longest night. We hope that you will join us at Nowell Sing We Clear on December 5th, and/or the Nelson Solstice Party, which features many traditional components, and some degree of traditional disruption as well.