Volume 78 - Number 28 / December 10 - 16, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Villager file photo

Odetta being honored with the first annual Village Music Legends Award last month.

A letter to Obama about Odetta; She can still sing

Barack Obama, Esq.
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Mr. President-elect:

I don’t know if you ever heard her when you were growing up all over the map, but you must have heard her when you were here at Columbia University in the early 1980s and she, one of the great folk singers, was still in full heart-swelling voice.

Almost the last thing she ever said — whispered aloud to a roomful of Greenwich Villagers at New York University’s Torch Club early last month — was her pride “that we now have a black man as president of the United States.” She told those around her that she wanted to sing at his inauguration.

Then, that night at the Torch Club, so low that you could hardly hear her from only a few feet away, the 77-year-old Odetta crooned one of the old hymns of the civil-rights movement to which she’d once lent so much strength, “When I Lay My Burden Down.”

Three weeks later — Tuesday, December 2, 2008, at Lenox Hill Hospital — that heart finally gave out.

“When I saw her at N.Y.U., I was shattered,” said Art D’Lugoff, the folk, blues and jazz impresario who’d been her friend for 50 years, booking her dozens of times — from the 1950s on — into his Village Gate on Bleecker Street.

“I first heard that voice — terrific, unbelievable — in a Croatian church on West 43rd Street,” said D’Lugoff. “She was then living in Chicago. I sent her the princely sum of $25 to fly to New York and get together with me. I booked her again and again and again — a folk artist I loved and adored.

“She was an influence on everybody: Bob Dylan, who’d originally come to New York as a rock-’n’-roller. Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Tracy Chapman — everybody.

“She loved to mingle and talk,” said D’Lugoff. “We always talked politics. Woody Allen” — who broke in as a stand-up at the Gate — “I don’t think I ever spoke 200 words with him. John Coltrane, maybe 15.”


“Fifteen. But Odetta, she loved the world. Loved showing up in different dresses. Not a tremendously heavy person, but a large person. She wasn’t skinny — how’s that?”

D’Lugoff was “proud to say I was at the March on Washington, and she sang there.” She also sang for John F. Kennedy in the White House, and years later, in 1999, President Bill Clinton presented her with an N.E.A. Medal of the Arts and Humanities.

So here we are, and Odetta is gone. She will not be able to sing at the inauguration of Barack Obama — not in person. But, Mr. President-elect, her voice — that voice — could still be there by other means.

Perhaps someone on your staff could arrange for a CD to play at some point on January 20, 2009 — perhaps her 2007 Grammy Award CD of “Going To Let It Shine.” Douglas Yeager, her manager (212-245-0240 or yeagerprod@aol.com), would be glad to provide the CD.

With all best wishes for the next four years. Let it shine.

Jerry Tallmer

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