Friday, December 12, 2008

Folk and blues singer Odetta dies

Last week, the astonishing folk singer Odetta died. There's a lovely review of her life in the New York Times... They title it "Odetta, voice of Civil Right Movement Dies at 77." Please scroll down on the NYT page to the video of a recent interview with her. She's already old, very old, for the interview, but when asked to sing, she closes her eyes, dips down her chin, and then, up with her chin and she sings... incredibly. Her voice is so percussive and rich. She is a big part of my family lore. When I was little, she came to visit us on the farm we lived on and my dad took astonishing photos of her. We often had her music playing.

As I've been writing books, she's been with me. A friend gave me a tape of her original recording at the Blue Angel in Sausalito. I worked my father's photo into my book on Woody Guthrie. And just two days ago, I wrote about her discovering Pete Seeger asleep in a big tent on the march they had both joined, Dr. King's Selma to Montgomery march for the vote in 1965.

There is lots of end-of-life joys and trials around me right now. My parents live about a mile away, and my mother is bed-bound, and on hospice. The great grace is that she is no pain. Our brother-in-law, Bernard, is very, very ill. He and my sister live with my parents. And in a separate apartment, our son Felix and his girlfriend live at the house. Felix gardens with my dad in the day (they have a ripping garden full of winter vegies and two huge, homemade greenhouses), and goes upstairs to check on my mom every evening, taking his guitar and singing songs to her. Today Felix called me from his cell phone. He and Sasha were just taking a walk in the Mountain View cemetery nearby, and he wanted to know where the family plot was.

Dying can involve a whole family, the sadness and hopeless waiting and caretaking and beautiful, unexpected moments of grace in it all.

3 comments:

Paul Hoffman said...

Thank you for posting about Odetta's passing. I was surprised, and saddened, about how few people noted it, compared to the large number of blog posts I see when lower-second-tier rock musicians die.

Odetta's voice was amazing and humbling. More important, she was a strong woman musician well before that was acceptable. The fact that she brought that and race to the awareness of many people made her all the more impressive.

sarah stephens said...

Thanks, too for sharing the cycles in your own family. It brought tears to my eyes to imagine Felix playing music for his grandmother, planting with his grandfather... Playing and growing, doing what matters.

I just spent two days with a great friend I see only once a year during the busiest season. We carve out days to bake hundreds of cookies together--hundreds upon hundreds. We've been doing it since college using her mother's German recipes, my mother's Betty Crockers and SO much butter.

My friend lost her sister and only sibling this year. She was 38 and died suddenly just a few months after my friend and her partner had twin sisters. My baking buddy and I talked and talked as we rolled and cut (spilling out a whole year in two days at 350 degrees)and thought about how the next generation seems to emerge so that the last one can pass. It's that salt that makes things taste sweeter. The spoonful of sugar for the hard medicine of loss. The music and memories (and a few Meyer lemons)? Those are the frosted topping.

anna grossnickle hines said...

You see such beauty in everything major and minor, weave it all together, and then you share it. What a gift! I too, thank you.