Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest

“Fascinating . . . . Odetta fans will delight in this timely biography.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Those unaware of her work will be compelled to learn more. An illuminating, stirring biography of the extraordinary ‘Queen of American Folk.’”
Library Journal, Starred Review

“A thoughtful portrait of an artist who never quite became as famous as she deserved to be . . . A much needed biography of a crucial American artist and activist.”
Booklist, Starred Review

“Zack . . . is convincing in his argument that Odetta Holmes has been underappreciated for too long . . . . An effective biography that demonstrates Odetta’s wide, deep legacy.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Odetta’s charisma is a touchstone in Mr. Zack’s engaging, revelatory chronicle . . . . Mr. Zack offers a much-needed corrective, restoring Odetta’s place as a performer who breathed new life into traditional American song. She regarded music and social protest as intertwined. By merging the two, she channeled her own pent-up rage at prejudice and injustice into a universal message of hard-won hope and reconciliation.”
The Wall Street Journal


“A solid work of reportage and writing . . . there are many excellent details in Zack’s biography.” —The New York Times

“Odetta’s life story takes on huge significance and scale in Zack’s book, as he explains how the winds of American history buffeted her talent like a tree flexing in the wind. Biographies can help us to conceptualize the slippery phenomenon we call being alive, especially as it relates to the passing of time. Is life made out of instants, like lightning flashing on a face in a storm, or is it some mystical force which flows across time, bigger than any one person? Odetta brims with the life of its forgotten subject, showing us that we have a lot of cultural history to re-learn, and many losses yet to mourn.”
The New Republic

 

“Odetta deserved better during her lifetime, but this biography moves toward properly cementing her legacy.” —Downbeat

“Ian Zack’s inspiring biography [reminds] readers of her place in the pantheon.”
MOJO magazine (U.K.)

 

“There is a celebration of Odetta’s life and legacy to be enjoyed, recalled—or discovered—in her 25 albums and this wonderful biography.”
San Francisco Classical Voice

“An inherently fascinating and thought-provoking biography.”
Midwest Book Review

“An absorbing portrait of a seminal artist. Odetta was my Queen.”
—Joan Baez, musician and activist
 

About the book

Odetta channeled her anger and despair into some of the most powerful folk music the world has ever heard. Through her lyrics and iconic persona, Odetta made lasting political, social, and cultural change.

A leader of the 1960s folk revival, Odetta is one of the most important singers of the last hundred years. Her music has influenced a huge number of artists over many decades, including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Kinks, Jewel, and, more recently, Rhiannon Giddens and Miley Cyrus.

But Odetta's importance extends far beyond music. Journalist Ian Zack follows Odetta from her beginnings in deeply segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to stardom in San Francisco and New York. Odetta used her fame to bring attention to the civil rights movement, working alongside Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, and other artists. Her opera-trained voice echoed at the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march, and she arranged a tour throughout the deeply segregated South. Her "Freedom Trilogy" songs became rallying cries for protesters everywhere.

Through interviews with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, and many others, Zack brings Odetta back into the spotlight, reminding the world of the folk music that powered the civil rights movement and continues to influence generations of musicians today.

Copyright 2020 © Ian Zack