Odetta, a major musical figure in the folk music revival of the 1950s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, died at 77 in Manhattan on Tuesday. Inspired by the work and prison songs of the Deep South during the era of segregation, Odetta blended folk, spirituals and blues to express the yearning for freedom. It was a theme she gave voice to in coffee houses in San Francisco and New York, in Carnegie Hall, and in the March on Washington for civil rights in 1963.
In an interview with The New York Times, Odetta talked about the meaning of the songs she heard during the Depression in Birmingham, Alabama:
They were liberation songs. You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life.
The video above shows scenes from Odetta's life to the accompaniment of her powerful rendition of "Cotton Fields." To watch the Times' excellent documentary of this folk music and civil rights icon, click here.