Forgotten protest icon Odetta Holmes lives on in modern Black American

In a 2020 Rolling Stone interview, musicologist and classically trained vocalist Rhiannon Giddens observed that Black artists are being written out of folk and country music history, adding that "folk festivals were thinly-veiled attempts to recast (traditional folk and country) music as white mountain music, as part of a project to create a white ethnicity."

However, Black musicologists, musicians, and songwriters have claimed their space in the record bins and on festival stages. Yola wove gospel and 1970s glam influences into traditional country songwriting on her kaleidoscopic debut album Walk Through Fire; Kaia Kater's quicksilver banjo playing has limned traditional Appalachian and Caribbean folk songs, and Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard brought blues to a contemporary audience with her guitar heroics and raw songwriting. Many blues women like Tracy Chapman and late Sister Rosetta Tharpe have been cited as influential by up-and-coming artists. But as the country once again reckons with white supremacy, and as a new generation of Black artists finds traction in the Americana movement, perhaps it's time to revisit one of the most overlooked but deeply resonant pioneers of folk music: Odetta Holmes.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on New Year's Eve, 1930, Odetta Holmes didn't start out as a folk singer. According to music Ian Zack, who published the first biography of the singer, Odetta: A life in music and protest in April of this year, Holmes' interest in music began when she and her family would listen to Saturday morning broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. This love of classical music eventually led her to join her high school's glee club and take singing lessons. Opportunities for Black classical singers were rare, however—even Odetta's hero, Marian Anderson, had to wait until 1955 to sing at the Met. 

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