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Home of Harlem Folk Singer Odetta Marked with Plaque

By Jeff Mays | July 18, 2012 10:25am
Folk singer Odetta, best known for folk songs such as her signature,
Folk singer Odetta, best known for folk songs such as her signature, "This Little Light of Mine," and for singing an old slavery song "Oh Freedom" during the march on Washington in 1963, received a plaque commemorating her accomplishments at the East Harlem building where she lived for over 40 years.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

EAST HARLEM—She traveled the world singing songs of freedom and resistance that inspired the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. who called her the "queen" of American folk music during the struggle for blacks' civil rights in this country.

But when the late folk singer Odetta was off the road, the eighth floor co-op at 1270 Fifth Ave. near 108th Street that she called home for over four decades — with its exquisite views of Central Park — was her sanctuary, said friends.

"Odetta lived most of her life on the road but coming home meant the world to her. This building meant the world to her," said Michelle Esrick, who described herself as Odetta's spiritual daughter.

Now passersby of the building will be able to read about the accomplishments of Odetta, born Odetta Holmes, with the instillation of a porcelain plaque on the side of the building as part of Historic Landmarks Preservation Center's cultural medallion program.

The program commemorates individuals who have made a contribution to the city's cultural history. Odetta, best known for folk songs such as her signature, "This Little Light of Mine," and for singing an old slavery song "Oh Freedom" during the march on Washington in 1963, is more than deserving given her impact on America, friends and fellow musicians said.

With her rich voice and emotionally evocative singing, not only did Odetta stand with King and others in the freedom marches in the Deep South, she inspired singers such as Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Janis Joplin and Joan Baez.

Parks once said that it was the songs Odetta sang that meant the most to her. Many considered Odetta's voice to be the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.

"She had a voice that was totally unique. When she spoke a word or sang a song, it was like Mother Earth speaking," said folk singer and songwriter Tom Chapin.

That voice took her from Carnegie Hall, to an important voice in the civil rights movement, and made her the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts awarded by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Odetta died in Dec. 2008 from heart failure at the age of 77.

Several artists such as Peter Yarrow, one of the founding members of folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, performed rousing renditions of the songs that Odetta sang over the course of her 60 year career, including "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and "Oh Freedom." Henry Butler, Guy Davis, David Amram, Dave Keyes and other musicians also came out to pay tribute.

"Odetta was a mentor to me," said Yarrow. "She inspired me," he added.

Butler described hearing Odetta for the first time.

"She was one of the strongest female singers I had heard in my whole life," he said.

Chapin said it's easy to forget how recently the civil rights movement occurred but important to remember that it was unusual to see a woman, and a black woman, out front.

"It was her power and grace that made the difference," Chapin said.

Roberta Brangam, a long-time resident of 1270 Fifth Ave., said the idea for the plaque came as she was walking home on Fifth Avenue one evening and saw one affixed to a building that honored renowned black opera singer Marian Anderson, someone whom Odetta admired.

"For people of my generation she is a figure. I thought to myself, 'How about Odetta," said Brangam.

A group from the building formed a committee to gather the evidence that Odetta lived at the building and to raise the $2,000 required for the plaque. Donations poured, including $100 from a 90-plus-year old woman in the building, as the group organized fundraisers.

Many residents believe that the co-op was one of the first along Fifth Avenue to be integrated. Odetta was well known in the building. When she wasn't being whisked off to perform by one of the black town cars frequently parked outside of the building, Odetta attended meetings and signed petitions just like everyone else.

Neighbor and committee member Peggy Strait said that as the neighborhood changed and the real estate became more expensive, Odetta joined the fight to preserve a clause in the co-op's tenancy agreement that allowed apartments to be transferred to heirs without the board's review.

"She stood for the rights of people," said Strait. "She fought locally for the same things she fought for out in the world."

Others recalled Odetta's strength and resolve. Her manager Douglas Yeager, who is working on a documentary about Odetta's life, recalled how she had performed 60 concerts 18 months after doctors said she shouldn't get out of bed.

Odetta was determined to sing at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Despite her declining condition, many thought she would defy her illness and live to do so. The appearance would have reintroduced her to an entirely new generation.

She didn't make it. Now friends and fellow artists will have to carry on her legacy, said Yeager, with a little help from Odetta's plaque.

"I know it makes Odetta smile every time someone looks at it," said Yeager.