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Folk singer. Odetta Holmes, later known simply as Odetta, was born on December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama.Before she even learned how to play an instrument, Odetta banged on the family piano in hopes of making music—until her family members got headaches and told her to stop. Growing up in the Deep South during the Great Depression, Odetta fell in love with the work songs she heard people singing to ease the pain of the times. "They were liberation songs," she later recalled. "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 ... those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life."
Odetta's father, Reuben Holmes, died in 1937, when Odetta was only 7 years old. That same year she and her mother, Flora Sanders, moved across the country to Los Angeles. It was on the train to California that Odetta had her first significant experience with racism. "We were on the train when, at one point, a conductor came back and said that all the colored people had to move out of this car and into another one," she remembered. "That was my first big wound."
Although Odetta loved singing, she never considered whether she had any particular vocal talent until one of her grammar school teachers heard her voice. The teacher insisted to Odetta's mother that she sign her up for classical training. In junior high, after several years of voice coaching, she landed a spot in a prestigious signing group called the Madrigal Singers. When Odetta graduated from Belmont High School in Los Angeles, she continued on to Los Angeles City College to study music. She later insisted, however, that her real education came from outside the classroom. "School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together," she acknowledged. "But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music." And as far as her musical development went, Odetta said her formal training was "a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life."
In 1950, after graduating from college with a degree in music, Odetta landed a role in the chorus of a traveling production of Finian's Rainbow. She fell in love with folk music when, after a show in San Francisco, she went to a Bohemian coffee shop and experienced a late-night folk music session. "That night I heard hours and hours of songs that really touched where I live," she said.
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