Review ~ Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest by Ian Zack

The first in-depth biography of the legendary singer and “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” who combatted racism and prejudice through her music.


Odetta channeled her anger and despair into some 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.4 

I love music. I love all genres of music. I do not know how I do not know about Odetta. My education has sorely been lacking to miss this important musical artist in the foundation of my humanity. Ian Zack says, “The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the crucial role that music could play in pushing the cause of freedom…he understood (music’s) power.” (Prologue). Music is powerful. It is in every song, lyric, beat that we associate with a feeling, memory, or person. 

“I am no longer willing to be who you want me to be; I’m going to write my own narrative.” Odetta Felious

Odetta represents freedom, power, resistance, and so much more to music artists around the world. Ian Zack tells their stories of her from over 75 interviews in Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest. Zack interweaves interviews of Odetta with the history of the time to give a glimpse into a shy, introverted, woman who found her voice through music and the people she met along the way.

Odetta did not set out to change the landscape, but she did not shy away from taking a stance. She did not need to open her mouth and sing as she displayed her stance with her hair. Odetta let her hair grow natural in what was a first at the time for women: a short afro. She dressed simply in jeans and shirt. She did not feel the need for airs. Odetta was just herself. She may not have liked how curvy she was, but do not talk to her about her hair.

I love this story and the fact that it is true is an inspiration and a privilege to read. 

I got this book from my library. I love my local library and you should check out yours too. Request LGBTQ+ books and they will stock them! #ebooksforall

Rating: 5 out of 5.


Further Details:
Publisher: Beacon Press, 9780807035320, 14 April 2020
Photos by: Photos by Jac. de Nijs, Dutch National Archives
Narrator: Rosa Howard
Pages: 288



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